When I see something purple, and someone else agrees it’s purple, I’m pretty certain in reality it is the color purple. If I still have doubts, I’ll ask others to validate my observation, so I can trust what I see. It’s called consensual reality. If a number of others disagree with me, I may feel the need to determine who is “right.”
Every once in awhile, perhaps three or four times a year, a client will enter my office and ask “has that picture (or some other object) been there before, or is it new?” (It’s usually something on the right of their visual field.) I’ll answer, “No, it’s been there for over ten years now.” “I don't think I’ve ever seen it before.” Usually this is a sign the person has experienced an important perceptual shift, an indication of therapy progress. Since it’s apparently a ‘left brain’ breakthrough, it may represent a better ‘external reality’ oriented advance. And my response it to compliment them that something important is or has happened inside.
Perhaps in therapy, more than most other life endeavors, we deal with the limitations and filters in our perception. I’ll comment to couples, “One of you is speaking Greek, and the other Swahili - and both of you insist you’re speaking English. Even the alphabets are different.” And the higher the anxiety, the more stubborn the presumed accuracy of one’s perception.
Both anger and anxiety generally narrow the range of our vision - emotionally and physiologically. You can be looking at something straight ahead of you, and I’m looking at something two feet to the right, and neither of us have any overlapping of what we see. Two primary examples are distressed couples and warring nations.
Another example I will playfully share with a couple. “When a husband looks at his wife in the morning and sees her as beautiful, he’s obviously hallucinating.” (The wife laughs with the obvious truth of my assertion.) But I continue, “At the same time when a husband looks at his wife in the morning and sees her as beautiful, he’s absolutely right.” (Now it’s the husband who smiles and nods his assent.) So often, when there’s a marital betrayal, such as infidelity, addiction, violence or lying (the basic four marital deal-breakers), the rending in the perception of reality is often more painful (even physically) than the offense itself.
We all have “blind spots.” The physiology of our eyes gives us a ‘blind spot‘ in each eye, which is graciously countered by the vision of the other eye. (Google it for more information.) One major utility of having a partner is that one can see where the other is blind. Our attraction to another person, often falls hazard here in that we ‘fall in love in our blind spots.’ In my couple mapping it’s frequently my skill to discern and map these unconscious swamplands where the alligators of discord lie in wait. This is where good pre-marital counseling can be a preemptive goldmine.
One primary outcome of therapy itself is the ability to see where our own nature or established family and cultural patterns would keep us in the dark. Hence the term “analysis.” And there are areas where we may never see, but at least we can learn to wisely accommodate to our blindness. There’s a “Silver Rule of Therapy” - which states that a therapist can take a client only as far as the therapist him or herself has been able to go. The skill of a seasoned therapist is not just in our technical knowledge of psychology, or the acquisition of the skills of our craft, but also from the rigors of our own formal analysis.
So, what is the lesson here? Three quotes:
“We don’t see things as they are, but as we are.” Anaïs Nin
“The question is not what you look at, but what you see.” Henry David Thorough
“O wad some Pow'r the giftie gie us, To see oursels as others see us.” Robert Burns
The lesson is to maintain a humility in the face of other people’s reality. In a sense, learn another person’s native language, or study another’s religion, or get married.
The latter is probably the hardest as well as the richest exercise in reality humility. Over the years - decades as well as centuries, I believe our culture is maturing in its understanding and capacity for intimacy. Perhaps at first, “intimacy” is basically hormonal, the gene pool’s desire to perpetuate the species. But very quickly now it can become something else, an invitation to the life-long work of building and feeding a relationship. The keystones are communication and monogamy.
The best rule is both our willingness and courage to see where we have been blind. Each of us knows the experience of looking for something that is actually right in front of us, but we can’t see it. Sometimes seeing can reveal the need for a difficult decision, even perhaps to move on. Sometimes it means to see the treasure for which our heart has long hungered - right there before our very eyes.
It’s not always a “fault” that we are blind - some “seeing anew” must wait for the right time or circumstance. I’ll counsel to “trust time” for clearing a path through our blindnesses. Work and time are the two primary ingredients.
I recall in one of the early novels of Louise Erdrich, I believe it was “Love Medicine” (1984), the protagonist was finally able to afford the gift of eyeglasses for her aging mother. But later, upon visiting her, the mother wasn’t wearing them. After protesting that she could see better with the new glasses, the mother stated flatly, “But I don’t want to see more clearly.”
Seeing takes courage. Courage can at times lead us through suffering. Courage can also lead us to happiness and ecstasy.
Either way, I insist the work and ability to see more clearly leads us forward into Life.
Great post, Bill. I really like how you wrap it up at the end. “Seeing takes courage. Courage can at times lead us through suffering. Courage can also lead us to happiness and ecstasy.” So true. It’s a lot of work to “see” but definitely worth the meaning and truth that comes from it. I wonder what the world would be like if everyone was seeing? But then again, that would probably take purpose away from those of us who already choose to see. The work, the time...it’s worth it.