Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Something Wrong with the Picture
distributed 12/3/04 - ©2004

I keep an old family portrait in my office. It is of an imaginary gentleman, someone who existed only in the artist's mind, but he still feels like a part of the family.

This picture hung in my grandfather's house for many years, and was a special part of my childhood. I keep it -- not just for sentimental reasons -- but because I learned a lesson from this odd drawing.

The picture is a charcoal sketch of a man with four eyes. He has two pairs of eyes, one set just above the other. Some tricky work by the artist around the bridge of the nose makes the drawing amazingly subtle and believable.

When people come into my office and see "old four eyes" for the first time, they often do a double take. They glance at the picture, look away, get a strange expression on their face, and then look back, squinting a little. They know it doesn't look right, but it takes them a while to figure out what is wrong.

Our minds are so accustomed to sorting out the characteristics of a human face that most people have a hard time recognizing that the picture doesn't show a "normal" face. They see what they think should be there, not what it actually on the paper. Their expectations are more powerful than their actual observation.

My grandfather had a practical use for this unusual picture. His role as a community leader meant that he often had to host large parties. Sometimes, a guest would have a bit too much to drink. On those occasions, my grandfather would take the person by the elbow, and say, "Have I ever shown you the drawing of my brother?" Then, with great ceremony, he would open the shutters on the basement wall that hid "old four eyes."

The tipsy guest would look, blink, look, shake their head, look again, and say, "I think I need to be going home now."

As a 10-year old, I loved hearing that story. I was fascinated with the reversals in the situation. The inebriated guests were the ones who were most able to see what was really there, but they were sure that the "seeing double" problem was with them. Sober folk, on the other hand, often couldn't see the reality. Like the visitors in my office, they had a very hard time recognizing that the drawing had four eyes.

Every day, when I glance at "old four eyes" I remember the childhood lesson: "If something doesn't look right, you may not be crazy, even if the people around you are sure that things are just fine."

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That picture is very reassuring to me. In my daily work, facing up to the eco-justice crises of the world, I often run into situations where I am sure that things I see about the state of the Earth are horribly wrong, and yet many of the people around me are convinced that everything is just fine.

Or, then again, maybe they're not completely convinced. They may be like the sober, level-headed people who come into my office and squint at the picture. They know what they should see, but it doesn't feel quite right. There's a nagging uncertainty that there's something wrong with this picture.

As people look at the reality around them, I believe they often tell themselves that everything is fine and "normal" -- even when it doesn't feel quite right. A few examples:

  • As we head into December, our society is immersed in a frenzy of commercialism. In a warped "spirit of Christmas," millions of people are going deeply in debt to buy mountains of meaningless junk that will actually erode the quality of life for the people they give it to. It sure looks wrong to me, but those crowds of folk will insist that it is normal and right. But still, many of them have a nagging sense that something is wrong.

  • I look at the spreading power of economic globalization. Huge corporations now have more wealth and power than sovereign nations. They shuffle currency, products and jobs around the world, driven only by a quest for profit, and demolishing communities and natural systems in the process. The businesses pages and political leaders tell me that this is not only normal, it is beautiful. But it looks wrong to me, and to many others who look carefully at what is happening. And I think that there are many other people who feel that "there's something wrong with this picture" -- but they don't know what.

  • Cancer rates are rising, and other diseases are increasing, in part because of the flood of chemicals being released into the environment. That death and suffering -- in humans and other species -- looks wrong to me. So many people look at the same situation and see it as tragic, but normal. But there's a lurking doubt: it didn't use to be like this, did it?
Commercialized Christmases, globalized power, and environmentally-induced diseases are a few of the situations that remind me of "old four eyes." I look at what is going on, and say, "That's not right! That's not the way it should be!" But people around me -- thoroughly conditioned to see what is expected -- don't see the problems, and think everything is find. Except, maybe, for a nagging doubt.

"Old four eyes" reminds me to trust my perceptions -- especially when I can back them up with hard facts. And that odd drawing encourages me to recognize and reinforce the doubts that others may have.

As we seek to care for all of God's creation, I pray that we may be honest and accurate in seeing the situation around us. And I pray that we may find gentle, but persistent, ways of reinforcing the nagging doubts of others that "there's something wrong with the picture."


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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