The absent-minded professor. His world is recognizable only to himself. He’s usually lost in his thoughts, his ideas. To ask him for wisdom about the great world outside the one between his ears is silly. That’s not the world he lives in. His mental preoccupations won’t let him see what’s in front of him. So he bangs into things a lot and mutters to himself and is content to be an amusing, bumbling campus character.
You could call him blind, you could say his perspective is lopsided or that he can’t see objectively. Something—in this case, his ideas and his infatuation with those ideas—is always getting in the way of literally seeing the objects in front of him.
You don’t have to be an absent- minded professor to have this experience. Most of us look at someone and see only the ideas, the emotions, the associations we carry with us. Our vision of others is bleary, imprecise. It’s as if when we were born, we were thrown into a room full of eyeglasses and told to pick a pair for ourselves and to wear them the rest of our lives. We’re so used to them, we don’t notice the distortion they provide.
So when we react to what we see, we’re not responding to what’s there. We react to the distortions of these eyeglasses. If we could recognize this, we’d have a chance to realize that there is indeed nothing between us. We could see one another as we are. But, as we are, we see only our distorted version of what’s there. And from these distortions, we build everything—relationships, theories. We write books, create religions, and make war.
Let’s say a person comes into view. What do we see? Maybe we see a fat person or a red-haired person who looks just like our Aunt Dorothy or a cop or a lawyer or Frank Sinatra. Or maybe someone will walk right in front of us and we won’t even see him coming until it’s too late and there’s coffee all over the carpet. The absent-minded professor lives!
Most of the time, we’ll see what we want to see or what we think we should see. But if we could at least become aware of how distorted our view can be, we could take another step—we could begin to take a look at what’s really there.
Some people, when they look at someone, will dwell in the surface of things. All they’ll see is clothing, fashion, that sort of thing. Others see a body. Some see the sex. It depends very much on what you pick up. What determines what you’ll pick up is how deeply you see into yourself. If all you see are your clothes, if life is just about how you appear to people, then that’s all you’ll see in the people around you. If life for you is all about taking care of your body, then when you look around, that’s what you’re going to see—you’ll see bodies. You can only see as deeply into something as you can see into yourself. It’s inexorable. It’s why, Mel Gibson notwithstanding, people didn’t recognize Jesus. Someone said he was God. Others saw a man from Nazareth. Another saw a carpenter’s son. Then they fought over whose misperception was the correct one.
It’s all a question of clarity of vision. We think we see things clearly when we don’t. If you can’t see objectively at the simple level of clothing, you won’t be able to see any deeper with any degree of clarity. You can try to go deeper, but you’ll see even less. So to develop the vision to see with clarity, with exactitude, means that you must look at the level that you can see best, and recognize what your eyes are seeing.
You’d be surprised how rare this is. How many people are in love and can’t tell you the color of their beloved’s eyes? They’ve looked into those eyes hundreds, maybe thousands of times, but they didn’t recognize what their eyes were seeing.
So if you want to change this state of affairs when you deal with a person, you don’t want to view them in the same old smudgy, blurry way. You want to see them with some precision, at the level at which you’re most accustomed. That’s the first step in seeing anyone in a deeper way.
If what you see is clothing, then zero in on the clothing, on its details, its colors and textures. And the same thing if you’re focused on the level of the body. Look at the body before you. See it for what it is. You can’t pass to a deeper level, a deeper understanding of things, if you can’t clearly see the level you’re most familiar with.
This isn’t, by the way, a matter of thinking, but a deeper penetration of sight. Think of Superman and his X-ray vision. That’s what we talk about when we talk about someone who has insight. They can see into things. They have sight that goes in. It’s in them and it goes in. So they look at something and, because they’ve looked inside themselves, they’re able to go past the surface.
Here’s an example of what I mean. Ever try to draw something? Let’s say you set out to draw a tree. You’ve seen this tree a thousand times. But as soon as you start to draw it, you begin to notice things about it that you didn’t see before. It’s as if someone has taken the veil—or the lenses—from your eyes. That effort to draw can allow you to recognize what your eyes are seeing, to see what’s actually there.
You can do it without drawing. Just take note of what you see. Then it becomes possible to answer a question like “What is a human being?” To answer such a question means you have the sight that will go right into the core. And it means that you have the sight that goes into your core.
As you develop your ability to see, you’ll recognize that it’s incumbent upon you to respond to the person before you at the deepest level possible.
There’s a wonderful story about St. Francis of Assisi. He’s walking along the road and here comes a leper, ringing his bell, warning people of his approach. Francis walks over to him, embraces him and kisses him. People are shocked. They didn’t know much about medicine back then, but they knew leprosy was highly contagious.
So why did Francis do such a thing? What did he see in that leper? Everybody else saw disgusting boils and rotting flesh. Francis saw something that was worthy of an embrace, a kiss. It happened because of the depth of Francis’s insight.
You can’t say he saw himself as a body, because if he did, he’d have reacted and run away like everyone else. He saw beyond the leper’s rags and boils. He saw more deeply, at the deepest level possible, and responded accordingly.