Looking but not seeing

Cottontail bunny rabbit eating grass in the gardenOnce many years ago I lived in a house in the country. The field just beside my house lay fallow and overgrown with weeds, giving homes to a variety of wildlife including rabbits, raccoons, hedgehogs, and a variety of other animals that were usually unseen during the day, at least whenever I was around. One day I was out in the yard and noticed a rabbit sitting perfectly still just at the edge of the field, and it struck me as odd that it hadn’t run when I came by. I was fascinated by the stillness of the creature and turned aside to look more closely. I moved slowly toward it, expecting it to bolt at any moment, but it didn’t. The longer it remained still, the more curious I was and tried to come nearer; the closer I got the more amazing it seemed.

I got down on the ground and moved slowly, until eventually I came so close I could have reached out and touched it. I looked directly into the rabbit’s eyes, and it looked back at me. I stared for some minutes, unable to fathom the mystery of why it didn’t move. It just kept gazing steadily at me. Then, suddenly, with a shock, I saw the light go out of its eyes. One moment it was alive, and in the next breath the living creature was gone. The rabbit had died while I lay gazing at it. It was only then that I saw the tendril of weed that had become tangled around its neck. Whether it died of strangulation or terror I have never been sure. But the rabbit that I failed to rescue that day, that I failed to see clearly or to understand its situation, even under my steady gaze, has haunted me ever since. It’s one of the regrets that will follow me to my grave.

fasciaSince that day, more than once (more often than I like to admit even to myself) I have failed to see what I was looking at. It’s a humbling, painful experience to realize that has happened — and how often it does happen! I think many of us actually do this most of the time, looking without seeing clearly. We don’t notice, don’t grasp, what we might have understood better if we’d let go of our assumptions, or maybe if we just opened our eyes a bit wider. I think of the people we only half listen to because we have put them in a box and labeled them in our minds… the husband or wife (or child or friend) who is telling us something but we keep missing the point… the people and things we don’t see because we think we understand already “where they’re coming from” and what their situation is… when we look without giving them our full attention. That day in the field with the dying rabbit, even with my attention fully engaged, I didn’t see what was in front of me.

How many times have I failed to hear what someone was trying to tell me, failed to see what was right in front of me as someone told me their story? It has happened for me again in recent months. My mother, who is blind, has been dropping a lot of things because she misjudges where the table top is. She has told me the story of how she broke at least half a dozen glasses in the course of a few weeks until my sister found an acrylic version she would drink from. She tells us how she has spilled things because she thought her hand was on the table, but it wasn’t, and so when she let go of the dish or the glass (or the pitcher or the sugar jar), she missed and instead it went on the floor. There are the countless times she walked too close to a counter or a table and ran into it, hurting her arm or her hip. Most recently while sitting in a chair she went to cross her legs but misjudged the distance so that the heel of her sneaker caught on the fragile skin of her other leg and tore it open.

It wasn’t until we were sitting in the doctor’s office and I was thinking about this that suddenly I realized it wasn’t her vision that was the problem. It was as if the light went on in me: she hadn’t been able to cross her legs without one hitting the other – something we all can do with our eyes closed! — something she should have been able to do even in the dark. Everything she’d been telling me for weeks fell into place in that moment. I told the doctor about it, and he prescribed a brain scan to see if something more than aging and her vision is causing this “position displacement” (there’s even a name for it!). Until we do the scan we won’t know if there is a larger issue causing this, of course, but it seems obvious to me now that I’d been missing something significant all along, even while I’d been listening carefully and watching her steadily. I just didn’t give it the thoughtfulness that it deserved. I assumed I understood what was going on, when clearly I didn’t.

So we can watch, and listen, and still not “get it.” We can thoroughly misunderstand another’s person’s point of view, or the significance of what they’re telling us, or the meaning of their silence, or the nature of the troubles they’re dealing with, though we may have the best intentions. It isn’t a benign problem, even when our intentions are good and our misjudgments are nothing more than thoughtlessness. Other people suffer unnecessarily when we’re not careful to see them clearly and we don’t strive to understand them and their situation.

There were people in Jesus’ day who looked right at him and didn’t see him clearly. They called him the spawn of the devil. They saw him as an enemy to be defeated. The most religious of his countrymen were suspicious of him. In the end, people who thought they knew what he was and considered him a danger, killed him. Sadly, it isn’t ancient history; it happens today as well. I’m reading Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom, and it strikes me that the people who espoused apartheid and who looked on the Africans and despised them – like the people in our country who look at every African-American or person of color in the same way – were more blind to those men, women, and children than anyone can be who is only physically blind.

Jesus said once, “… if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!” [Matthew 6:23 NRSV] He wasn’t speaking of the physical but of interior sight – of our capacity to see what we are looking at, to see it clearly and truly. To look on someone who has holiness inside them and see it. To look on someone in need and understand their need. To see a situation and not brush it off without clear thinking. To look without prejudice and the kind of pre-judgment that edits out possibilities and potential.

Instead, so often we look without really seeing, to this day. We do it in our churches, in our neighborhoods, in our workplaces, and in our homes. We label even those we love, like our children – often to devastating effect (Judy is “the smart, quiet one;” Janie is “the pretty and popular” one)! The minute we do that we stop seeing them as whole persons. We especially label our enemies, or those we think of as enemies, and never see the persons who are actually in front of us.

Sometime read the 9th chapter of John’s Gospel. It’s a story of profound blindness, the gift of seeing and of the dangers of not seeing! It’s a call to wake up. It we really listen to that story it will shake us up!

How great is our darkness? That is the question. How much do I not see, while I’m staring right at it? How much do you not see? And how can we best begin to make the scales fall from our eyes?

Blessings to you, with peace and joy, as we open our eyes a little bit wider!

Author: Linda Robinson

Writer, sketcher, Christian contemplative, concerned citizen.

2 thoughts on “Looking but not seeing”

  1. Thank you! I have a special love and connection with rabbits. What strange, fierce gift was handed to you in your encounter with that bunny. As a prey species they are always offering themselves up, giving their life so others may have life.

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    1. Thank you, Loretta, for your comment. Your words (“strange, fierce gift”) surprised me and invite me to go back and pray more about that moment. It comes to me often, more lately than usual, so I’m guessing there’s more in it that I have yet to discover. I appreciate your insights.

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