O Be Careful, Little Eyes
During the first year of my Ph.D. program, I had the opportunity to study with Dr. Robert Neville, an established, well-known systematic philosopher and theologian. We met in his office once a week in the morning and discussed our readings which all concerned interpretation, language, symbols, relationships, and reality. I remember studying his walls, noticing a number of paintings—which I would later discover were all painted by his wife. One day he asked us, “What do you notice about this painting to my left?” We studied the painting carefully, and ventured a few observations. Most of our observations concerned light, color, shapes, etc. “Hmm. Okay,” he replied. Then he left the subject entirely.
A couple of weeks later he asked us again, “What do you notice about this painting to my left?” We all looked at each other sheepishly, wondering if he remembered our conversation from before. We attempted new observations. “Hmm. Okay,” he replied again. He looked at the painting for a moment and asked, “Did you see anything new this time?” Realizing that he was trying to teach us something, we began to list new observations. Suddenly he interrupted us and asked, “Did you ever notice that this painting is kind of the inverse of the painting to my right? Notice the colors, shades, and shapes.” We all shifted our attention and let out a little laughter. We had not noticed. “Now what do you see?” he asked. It was a lesson in vision. It was an opportunity for us to reflect on how we interpret what is in front of us, and why we see the things we see.
Vision is powerful, but it is always selective and limited. We can pass the same neighborhoods, the same buildings, and the same businesses a thousand times on our way to work and never really notice them. We can see the same barista at our local coffee shop every day and never know their name. Our vision is often so conditioned by habit or by culture that we are utterly unaware of our own blind spots.
I recall a story a friend once shared with me from her childhood, when her family took a vacation to Jamaica. She was about seven years old and as they drove through a poor part of town, she noticed a little girl about her age who was very skinny and had no clothes. The girl’s mother stood next to her and was asking for money. So my friend called to her dad in the driver’s seat, petitioning for him to pull over with great urgency, “Dad, look! Dad! Don’t you see them? I have a dollar to give! They’re right there! We’re gonna pass them!” She remembers to this day the deafening silence from the driver’s seat. Not a word. He didn’t even flinch. He continued to drive silently, staring straight ahead until they reached their luxury resort. It took her years to realize that he had every ability to see and hear, but he did not want to see or hear. He guarded his vision.
I remember a song we used to sing at church when I was a little girl:
O be careful little eyes what you see
O be careful little eyes what you see
There's a Father up above
And he's looking down in love
So, be careful little eyes what you see.
I think this song intends to teach children about the power of vision (and hearing, and touching, and walking—as the song continues through each verse). However, I think the song also alludes to a certain level of anxiety or fearfulness about vision: the things we see lay claim to us. The things we see demand something of us. There is an economy tied to vision. This is why so many things lay siege to our vision. It is why vision is incentivized. Look here, not there. Observe this, ignore that.
For instance, let’s say the incentive for my vision is comfort. I might ensure greater comfort as a white person if I ignore the plight of people of color. Or I might secure more power if I claim to not see skin color at all! If I ignore someone else’s life, I might be rewarded with comfort, power, stability, or peace. In this sense, vision can be persuaded and shaped by a person’s character. Humility and a willingness to give up certain incentives, on the other hand, can result in a broadening of perspective. Compassion, generosity, and empathy can result in a willingness to see the wounds of the world. So either way, our lives and relationships can be shaped, for better or worse, by vision. My friend told me that, on the day her dad refused to respond to her, she learned what kind of man he was. She watched him repeat this behavior again and again throughout her life, and for this reason, she never felt that he was a good man. Their relationship remains strained to this day.
All of us are conditioned to see the world in certain ways. We are taught to see some things, and not others. We are shaped from the time we are born to see, hear, touch, and navigate the world in certain ways. And while there may not be anything wrong with the aforementioned children’s song (we should take great care when it comes to the formation of children), I do think it comes dangerously close to reinforcing a disposition of fear or anxiety when it comes to vision. Be careful little eyes, because what you see will lay claim to you. You must guard yourself. Protect yourself. Be selective about where you look. What you see may pose a threat to your wellbeing.
I worry about what a disposition of fear may do to the child as they grow older. If they are taught that a key to self-protection is the guarding of their vision, they may limit the scope of their vision in order to stave off uncomfortable or disturbing realities of suffering. Perhaps it would be better to let our vision be shaped by responsibility. Be aware, little eyes, because what you see will lay claim to you. So be mindful of where you look, and how you see the world around you. The great danger to your soul has less to do with what you see, and more to do with how you see. What pulls the strings of your vision? What incentives tug at your awareness? What shapes your response to a world full of pain? Are you willing to look and bear truthful witness to what surrounds you? Are you open to confronting your own blind spots? It is difficult to have eyes to see and ears to hear, but I believe that loving our neighbor requires such awareness.