You Just Have to See Them
I divide my time between Northern California and Costa Rica, the two San Josés that have come to define so much of my life. When I first visited the jungles of Costa Rica decades ago, my friends excitedly pointed out to me the monkeys in the trees. They were all around us, everywhere, hundreds of them, but I could not see a single one. A native of New York City, I could spot a mugger or a taxi blocks away, but a monkey in the trees, never. My eyes were not trained to this sight. It took practice, learning first to distinguish the unfamiliar patterns of greenery from each other, until I began to see little faces embedded in them everywhere. And once I saw them, I could never go back, could not unsee them. It is a sight that my brain/ heart and not just my eyes now inevitably recognize.
In a similar way, the eyes of the psychologist or the biologist, the astronomer or the archeologist are trained to see what each discipline defines as its monkeys. Even more important, each of us constructs a life, a worldview out of what is possible for us to see and names it reality when it is instead only possibility. Were the monkeys more or less real as I began to see them?
Wherever the eye rests, the mind enters. And, once it does, what is seen is melded seamlessly with what cannot be seen in this inescapable form of visual and conceptual alchemy. In this act of perpetual creation and recreation, perspective is born. The most seemingly simple and objective act of sight, from the first moment, contains pattern and pattern turns into story. The eyes are the servant of the brain. Once the patterns are established and the story written, whatever we see fits into what each brain offers.
The human brain is a scanner looking for a pattern that makes sense and that fits with previous patterns, that confirm already accepted meaning. We see what we have been taught to see and how we have been taught to see it. Buddhists work at developing “beginners’ eyes” and I did the same by immersing myself in the world of the blind. Foreign travel often accomplishes this same effect and is why it can be so entrancing and enticing. Seeing anew can bring back the simple delight of childhood learning.
It is enormously difficult not to just confirm prior patterns. It is even more difficult to do alone. This is what education provides; it is also what diversity provides and finally what an effective psychotherapist can offer. It is almost impossible to do this alone. You just cannot see the monkeys that you cannot see. You don’t even know you are supposed to be looking for monkeys- on 42 Street or in the jungle.
There are always new ways to look at old issues like sexism, racism, homophobia and other forms of learned bias. Those who just accept what they already know to be true might think they are seeing reality and are not aware of their partial blindness.
Diversity provides different perspectives, as does good education and good psychotherapy. “There might be another way to look at this issue.” And there always is. We are all temporarily blind.
 Kaschak, E. Sight Unseen: Gender and Race through Blind Eyes, Columbia University Press, New York, 2015.