Guest Reflection: Seeing with Open Eyes

Published April 6, 2011

“Seeing people-as they really are-is not easy. We tend to see people through our own unique lens of experience. None of us are ever totally objective…” Photo: Shutterstock

Stephen Covey, author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, tells of an experience while riding the New York City subway one Sunday morning. People were sitting quietly-some reading newspapers, some lost in thought, some resting with their eyes closed. Suddenly, a man and his children entered the subway car. The children were so loud and rambunctious that the climate changed sharply. The man sat down next to Covey and closed his eyes, apparently oblivious to the situation. The children were yelling back and forth, throwing things, even grabbing people’s newspapers. And yet, the man did nothing.

Covey couldn’t believe that the man could be so insensitive as to let his children run wild and do nothing about it. So he turned to the man and said, “Sir, your children are disturbing a lot of people. I wonder if you couldn’t control them a little more.”

The man lifted his gaze as if coming to consciousness and said softly, “Oh, you’re right. I guess I should do something about it. We just came from the hospital where their mother died about an hour ago. I don’t know what to think, and I guess they don’t know how to handle it either.”

Can you imagine what Covey felt at that moment? Instantly, he saw things differently, and because he saw things differently, he thought differently, he felt differently, he behaved differently. His irritation vanished. Feelings of sympathy and compassion flowed freely.

“Your wife just died? Oh, I’m so sorry! Can you tell me about it? What can I do to help?”

Everything changed when he saw the man from a different perspective.

Seeing people-as they really are-is not easy. We tend to see people through our own unique lens of experience. None of us are ever totally objective; our values, our attitudes, our backgrounds and our expectations shape our judgements about others.

A vivid illustration of this is found in the Old Testament, 1 Samuel, verses 1 to 16. After being told that Saul will no longer be able to function as king, the prophet Samuel goes to the village of Bethlehem and to the home of a man named Jesse, where a new leader for Israel is being prepared.

When Samuel asks to see the sons of Jesse, the first one brought to him is a strikingly tall and handsome lad by the name of Eliab. From outward appearances, he looks the way a king ought to look, and Samuel jumps to the conclusion that here is Saul’s successor. But God says to Samuel that he is not to let outward appearance be the only factor in making a judgement about a person, “for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”

This means, I think, that God takes the whole person into account when God looks at us. The fact that one is male or female, belongs to a particular race or ethnic group, has so much education or is part of this or that social class-none of these characteristics, taken in isolation, is sufficient to make a definitive judgement about a person. There is always more to a person than outward appearance: God looks on the heart.

I have often thought how different my life would be if I were to go blind. It would be a drastic diminishment of capacity. Yet it might save me from countless relational dead-ends, when, on the basis of some facet of appearance, I have jumped to an entirely wrong conclusion about another.

The French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupery said that what is most essential about another is rarely visible to the naked eye on first appearance, and I think this is true.

A famous novel, All Quiet on the Western Front, makes this point graphically. During an unusually fierce ground battle in World War I, a German soldier dived into a foxhole only to find a British soldier lying right beside him. On seeing the enemy uniform, the German instinctively reached for his bayonet, expecting to be attacked. Then he saw that the British soldier was mortally wounded, a hole gaping where his stomach had been. He was fumbling to get something out of his uniform. The German soldier, sensing he was in no danger, reached over and helped him, and out fell some well-worn photographs of two little children, a young woman and two older folk. The German soldier realized they must be the man’s family, and he held the pictures for the dying man to see. He got out his canteen and wet the feverish lips of the British soldier. With that, the British soldier grasped the German’s hand in that universal symbol of gratitude and breathed his last.

The German soldier lay there for a long time, reflecting on what had happened. The soldiers had been told by their governments that they were enemies and must destroy each other in order to survive. And yet, when he had dared to get close enough to see the so-called enemy, lo and behold, they were so much alike! The German soldier had children, too, and a wife and parents back home. He knew what it was to be thirsty, to experience pain and to be able to acknowledge gratitude. The first thing he had seen when he looked at the man was the uniform of an enemy. When he dared look deeper, he saw the qualities of a brother.

The great tragedy of racism, sexism, prejudice and stereotyping other people is that they keep us from the very kinds of contact that can help us acknowledge our common humanity. And yet, that is precisely the problem with so much of our seeing. We tend to look only at appearances. We perceive but a fraction of the mystery of another-the colour of their skin, the colour of their ideas, the colour of their uniform, the colour of their behaviour-and then we make judgements about the whole person. We miss so much, and tragically distort things at the relational level.

Is there any hope for such faulty vision? I want to affirm that there is. The gospel writers recorded many things Jesus did, but one in particular stands out-how often he opened the eyes of the blind! This form of healing is mentioned more than any other. It is as if Jesus realized the importance of this capacity, and paid special attention to restoring it.

Something can be done about our eyes if we are serious. We can bring them to the God who made them, and admit that we have misused and abused them in a thousand ways, and then discover the greatest truth in the world-that it is never too late with God for our eyes to see clearly-to see as God sees -without shade of class or colour or gender or shape or size or disability.

I would like to share a story close to my heart, from the book Healing Where It Hurts by James Moore. The story is about a young man by the name of Dolph (short for Rudolph), who is the son of a Methodist pastor in Texas. Dolph is in his late twenties, but still lives with his parents. He has Down syndrome. He is an absolute delight, a joy to his family and to his church. He sings in the choir and has a marvelous sense of humour. And he is very matter-of-fact about his condition.

For example, he once asked a visiting pastor who was giving a lecture at his father’s church this question: “Do you think if Jesus saw me, he would see someone who is not normal? Would he see someone with Down syndrome?”

The pastor responded: “Dolph, I believe Jesus would see what I see. When I look at you, I do not see someone with Down syndrome. I see a wonderful, delightful child of God.”

Dolph, beaming, then responded with a statement that carried the day: “I know just what you mean, because when I receive communion and see the hands of my dad giving me the bread, I look up and I do not see my dad. Instead, I see the face of Jesus.”

Have you ever looked at someone like that? Do you see the face of Jesus in other people? Would not that be something-if God could open our eyes that really and truly we might see? Let it be, Lord, let it be!

The Rev. Dr. Gary Nicolosi is the rector at St. James Westminster Anglican Church in London, Ont.


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