The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries
Something Wrong with the Picture
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:
"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."
Eco-Justice Ministries * 400 S Williams St, Denver, CO 80209 * Home Page: www.eco-justice.org
Eco-Justice Ministries ended all programming on July 31, 2020. This site is an archive of writings and resources.
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