A single moment passes so quickly, yet can change a life forever.
I was in the back seat of our family car. I watched the world from here a lot in my early years. I used to love long car rides, the passing scenery mingling with my day-dreams, the open Australian sky, presiding over cities, towns, fields and mountains.
I saw so much from this seat. Day-dreamed so much. I was both a spectator and a player, removed from all I saw yet full of thoughts and judgements about it all. Oh how clever my thoughts were when I was young. As an adolescent I was a poet, philosopher, judge and jury. I had so many right answers. It is only now that I am old that I have grown stupider… and wiser.
This day we were in Canberra. I don’t remember why.
We were on our way somewhere, passing by, passing through. That is when I saw him.
That is when I didn’t see him.
His head was tilted to one side with a strange twitch, his un-kept facial hair covered much of his face and had almost as many ‘locks’ as the long matted hair on his head. His clothes were dirty, life-dirty. If not for the car window I am certain his stench would have repelled me as much as in that moment his appearance did.
Life is made up of moments. A moment is all it takes for one soul to size up another, one moment to see, one moment to not see. My father in the driver’s seat of the car had seen the man too. Strange how we can share the same moment and yet be miles away from each other within it.
“Man, there are a lot of weirdo’s in this world!” I said. I spoke jokingly, inviting others to join in my wit, my scorn, my moment of keen insight.
My father slowed the car and pulled over to the side of the road. Quietly he stopped, turned around and…
His shout was loud but at the same time measured, his eyes burning with passion and
sadness all at once.
An earnest calm returned to his ordinarily gentle voice. “…There are only frail lambs without a shepherd.”
Eventually I started blinking again, eventually my breath returned and my heart rate settled down. I had no reply. There was none.
My father turned around and started the car again. There was complete silence. Even the car engine seemed to be holding it’s breath.
The few minutes it took to reach our destination felt like a millennia. I needed that long to think.
The first time I went to a 3D movie I found the glasses extremely uncomfortable to wear. Eventually I grew accustomed to them as the only alternative is to watch a very blurred film. My son Oliver is four. He refuses to wear the glasses, so every time we go to a 3D movie as a family he watches a much fuzzier version of the film than we do. He doesn’t seem to mind.
That moment in the car with my dad was like putting on a pair of 3D glasses for the first time. In an egocentric blur my youthful arrogance had been seeing, but not seeing. That day I had the uncomfortable realisation that it wasn’t just that I had made a nasty comment about a person more vulnerable than myself, but that when the words left my mouth, I had believed them. My comment only expressed the repulsion I had felt in my heart and therefore seen with my eyes.
My father and I had seen the same thing, sat in the same car, passed by the same man, but our vision of the reality we were looking out at was poles apart. I had seen a weirdo. He’d seen a struggling human being.
French author Anaïs Nin wrote “We don’t see the world as it is, we see it as we are”.
My eyes. They are green with a hint of hazel but do they really see? What if the very eyes I look out from are tinted, skewed in some way? What if I don’t see the world as it is at all, but as my eyes are…or as my heart is.
My husband is colourblind. When we were first married I found it amusing the number of times I was sent on wild goose chases looking for green power cords or blue jackets only to find them to be brown or red or some other colour. When he was a teenager at boarding school he had taken himself off to buy a new pair of blue shorts for P.E., only to find in horror when he wore them to class that he was wearing bright purple shorts (not a good look for a teenager in British Public School!). There are some large trees here in Jamaica where we live that have bright red flowers floating in a sea of vivid green leaves. They happen to be the same hue. My husband cannot distinguish the flowers at all. He simply doesn’t see them.
There are some women who are tetra chromatic. That is, when the rest of us see the world with three colour rods in our eyes, they have four. Normal people with their three rods can see around a million hues of colour. Tetra chromatic women see over 100,000,000 hues. They see many shades and variations within each hue that most of us never see. Even though each of us looks out at the same reality, we can only see the colour our eyes allow us to see. We think we see reality, but the reality we see is filtered and influenced by our eyes.
Could it be that our emotional eyes work in similar ways? Are there whole worlds of feeling and awareness I am blind to? Are there whole ways of seeing I am closed to? Where do my ‘emotional eyes’ come from?
German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer said ‘Every man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world’ . Our field of vision not only limits the world we see, it is also the world we live in, affecting our awarenesses, choices and actions.
When I was in South Africa fourteen years ago I was taken by a Black South African friend to a national monument which had been built by the Afrikaners people. All around the walls in grand white stone was carved the narrative of the Afrikaner. I found it fascinating to note that the pictures of the pioneering Afrikaner people were larger, showing more emotion and human facial distinction. In the distant background the black South African peoples (the Zulu, Xhosa, Tswana etc) were depicted with neither distinguishing features nor human emotion. To the general population of the Afrikaners people back then, to be human meant to be white.
We see the world as we are, not as it is.
As we humans wrestle with the question ‘what does it mean to be human?’ we have to come to terms with the reality that just like a dirty windshield on a car, the vision we have of our fellow human beings can be coloured and scarred by our own history, culture and experiences. A significant challenge we have in finding an adequate answer to this question is that we already have an inadequate answer. Consciously and or subconsciously our past has given us a narrative describing what it means to be human; who we are, who they are (the other seven billion people we share this planet with). This internal story influences our behaviour, emotions and relationships. It precedes all we see with our physical eyes, creating the framework we use to make sense of the information our eyes transmit back to us.
When I look at you, what do I see? A threat? A friend? A business opportunity? A person? And how many filters, archaic lenses and attitudes does your vision pass through before it lights upon my face? The ‘eyes’ with which we view people unless examined will determine how we treat them. He is not just black, he is a thief. She’s not just a Muslim, she’s an extremist, He’s not just a policeman he’s corrupt. He’s not just mentally disabled on the street, he’s a weirdo.
The only commonality between all these labels is that none of them see and name a human being. This bumper sticker version of a person they label is a far cry from the complex, strange unreachable phenomenon that is us… we humans.
When we look out at the world we think we see reality as it is, but really we are looking through a story, a story constructed by our history, experience, education and culture. Through this story our beliefs become belief systems, an arrangement of attitudes that project a skewed reality onto the canvas of what is real.
“But once you have a belief system everything that comes in either gets ignored if it doesn’t fit the belief system or get distorted enough so that it can fit into the belief system…
…If one can only see things according to one’s own belief system, one is destined to become virtually deaf, dumb, and blind.’ Robert Anton Wilson, American Author and playwright
Our belief systems are contagious, passed on through family, history, gossip, media, through subtle praises or punishments, looks of delight or disdain. In these systems cultures form around us like a slow rising fog revealing what is allowed to be seen and making invisible what is not. Culture becomes the air we breathe, we neither see it or question it. It becomes our nervous system normal, our comfortable collective view of reality that subconsciously dictates everything that is permissible or possible within our culture.
‘One way of thinking of cultures is to see them as rather like valves that either open up or close our contact with aspects of reality’
David Hay, English Zoologist and Author 1
When a society believes a unifying narrative strongly enough it shapes it’s culture and becomes a powerful force for good… or for evil.
I currently live in Kingston, Jamaica. For over 300 years Jamaica was under colonial rule first by the Spanish, then by the British. Many British gentlemen owned lucrative sugar plantations throughout the West Indies. Demand for sugar was high, but so was the cost of manual labour to produce the sugar… unless of course you didn’t have to pay your workers. Human trafficking and slavery became a normal part of respectable business practice. A narrative of the African people being somehow less than human was convenient and necessary to make these ventures possible. If I see you as a ‘thing’ and a thing that is my ‘property’ I can treat you as a beast of burden with a clear conscience.
‘Europe created a society that was totally immoral. Legislation made the African slave, male or female, property, a chattel, no longer a person. …The natural father was downgraded to progenitor and the woman from mother to breeder.’
Philip Sherlock, Hazel Bennet, ‘The Story of the Jamaican People’
Bishop Desmond Tutu said ‘Racism, xenophobia and unfair discrimination have spawned slavery, when human beings have bought and sold and owned and branded fellow human beings as if they were so many beasts of burden’.
During the 350 years between 1500 and 1850 over twelve and a half million African people were shipped across the Atlantic to the Americas and the Caribbean to work in brutal conditions on sugar plantations. 20% of these men, women and children didn’t even survive the ocean voyage. 2 Due to harsh treatment and working conditions, the average life expectation of a slave on arrival in Jamaica was seven years. 3
“But It wasn’t personal, it was business, they were just beasts of burden after all…not humans like us”.
We see the world not as it is, but as we are.
Ideas build one on another, theories shape thoughts and words create worlds. Living in these worlds that have slowly formed themselves around us we humans rarely question the blinkers they place on us, the lenses they filter our reality through.
‘History teaches us that every age is blind, and, being blind, does not know to what it is blind. Future ages will admonish us for what we do not see. Even Darwin, one of the most empathetic of humans, could not entirely escape the prejudices of his own age. No one can. To understand the past is partly to unlearn what we know of the present.’ Christopher Potter, ‘How to make a Human Being’. 4
In 1859 Charles Darwin’s ‘The Origin of Species’ was published marking an epoch in human thought. Biologist and Philosopher Herbert Spencer inspired by Darwin’s theory of natural selection coined the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’. Though probably never intended by Darwin to apply to the human race in such a way ‘social Darwinism’ crept into streams of Victorian thought whispering new ideas such as ‘the poor will always be with us’, ‘healthy societies must eliminate the unfit’ and ‘selective human breeding is the way to build a better society’.
‘If a twentieth part of the cost and pains were spent on measures for the improvement of the human race as is spent on the improvement of breeds of horses and cattle, what a galaxy of genius might we not create!’ Sir Francis Galton, (Cousin of Charles Darwin) ‘Hereditary Character and Talent’
These ideas captured the minds of Victorian society. Leading universities offered courses in Eugenics, and a Eugenics Society was formed whose members included prominent leaders, politicians and academics.5 Many countries (including America, Canada, Sweden and Belgium) introduced compulsory sterilisation of the mentally ill.
Fostered by these threads of thought, a narrative of white racial supremacy emerged in Europe. Books and papers began to be circulated and soon the term ‘racial hygiene’ was introduced alongside discussions on selective breeding and Eugenics.
In Germany this narrative gained particular traction, forming the basis for Nazi Germany’s racially biased social policies. ‘Scientific research’ was used to ‘demonstrate’ the ‘supremacy’ of the Aryan race over other ‘inferior’ people groups. Lectures were organised, textbooks were written and German children in schools were taught the ‘truth’ of their supremacy over other racial groups.
The purifying of the Aryan race became the heart of Nazi Germany’s ideology and practice. Humans who under this ideology were a threat to Aryan supremacy were viewed as ‘life unworthy of life’. These included the Roma people, Jehovahs witnesses, criminals, the insane, the weak, the disabled and homosexuals. Polish, Russian and Ukrainian people were also incarcerated or exterminated, but it was the Jewish people who attracted the full brunt of Nazi Germany’s hatred. In the years between 1933 and 1945 nine out of every ten Jews in Europe were murdered by Nazi Germany, amounting to more than six million men, women and children.6
Ideas build one on another, theories shape thoughts and words create worlds.
“But It wasn’t personal, it was policy, they were just beasts of poor breeding after all…not humans like us”.
We see the world not as it is, but as we are.
The late social psychologist and psychoanalyst Erich Fromm, in his book ‘The Sane Society’ writes “The fact that millions of people share the same vices does not make these vices virtues, the fact that they share so many errors does not make the errors to be truths, and the fact that millions of people share the same form of mental pathology does not make these people sane.” 7
The lens through which the majority see is not necessarily a measure of what is real, just or good. But that presents us with a challenge. How then do we know what is real, what is just and what is good? How do we discern the meaning and value of what it means to be human? Can we really trust the majority view? Can we trust what is projected daily into our living rooms on the TV and internet? Can they be trusted to tell us who we are? Do they care? Are we persons or just business, are we just beasts of burden after all? Beasts of poor breeding? Beasts of consumerism?
And what if we discover in our quest to discern what it means to be human something which doesn’t agree with what we have been told, something which offends our culture, our education, our ego, our pride, our religion… or lack of it? Will I be able to let my eyes see what is there to be seen, even if I don’t like it? Even if it doesn’t slot in nicely with what I already believe? What I want to believe?
French Novelist Marcel Proust said ‘The only real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.’
Perhaps this strange journey to discover what it means to be human begins not with looking out at them (the seven billion people we share this planet with) but as the ancient philosophers suggest, with looking inwards to ‘know thyself’* ; To have new eyes with which to see, to know the shape of our own souls that affects our view of the world, of people, of ourselves. If we could see in through our own eyes, down into our own hearts perhaps we could see more, see through ourselves into reality more; reality as it really is, not just as we are.
Maybe then I would see you, not as a weirdo, but as a human being. And perhaps that would be the beginning of me becoming one myself.