Spanish speakers say it beautifully: “Abre los ojos!” (Open your eyes!)
We receive remarkable training, formal and otherwise, in thinking, interpreting and understanding. Not so much for looking.
In fact, we receive a great deal of training in not-looking or looking the other way.
How’s that, you ask?
I’m reminded of a popular bumper sticker: “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.”
Most of us, most of the time, are insufficiently outraged given the evidence that surrounds us.
Take, for example, the prevalence of homelessness in New York City. My first internship as a social work student in New York City was working with a city-funded program that “checked up on” and otherwise kept tabs on mentally ill homeless persons (or persons presumed to be homeless and presumed to be mentally ill). Occasionally we would respond to a call from a concerned New Yorker routed to the program through New York City’s 311 system, but most days we’d cruise around the city (mostly Manhattan and Brooklyn), stopping at some of the usual hot spots (Grand Central Terminal, Penn Station, Bryant Park) to walk around and approach familiar faces or perhaps people we didn’t know who seemed to fit the profile, offering them a meager lunch in exchange for a few minutes of conversation. (In rare cases we might decide to hospitalize them, almost always involuntarily, but that’s another blog post).
Those first few weeks were an incredible experience. Over and over again, one of my co-workers would suggest I approach someone and offer a lunch. “Who do you mean?” I would ask. Inevitably there would be a “candidate” for our service standing directly in front of me, but I couldn’t see him or her! In just a few short weeks of living in New York City, I had unwittingly taught myself to edit out a whole group of people!
If you’re like most New Yorkers (and I’m sure this isn’t a phenomenon that’s just limited to New York) you probably think you notice homeless people. Now, I don’t want to assume I know what everyone sees and doesn’t see, but I’ll bet you notice just a fraction. (There’s a cool NYC organization called Picture the Homeless that addresses this very issue.)
But that’s only part of my point. Editing out the homeless from our field of view is just one way in which we’ve been unwitting trained not to look. We edit out parts of others (and ourselves) that we find unsavory. We edit out all sorts of things that don’t fit comfortably in our worldview.
Understanding is valuable. Thinking can be valuable, too. But not when those activities keep us from seeing—from LOOKING at what’s directly in front of us.
This phenomenon makes group therapy at one and the same time both deeply challenging and immensely helpful.
Therapy groups (or at least the sort of therapy groups I lead) involve people who, in all kinds of ways, are different from you. In New York City, the diversity of patients in a therapy group can be immense. My therapy groups are diverse with regard to the usual markers of diversity (race, sexual orientation, gender, income level) but also with regard to the reasons that brought people into the therapy group to begin with.
As you can imagine, this is incredibly challenging; building with difference isn’t easy. No small part of that is because, when you’re charged with building a therapy group with others, you get to know those others (and they get to know you) in ways that demand a level of honesty that’s not common to most relationships. And with that honesty, along with the charge to build a developmental environment, comes a demand to LOOK: To look at one another; To look at ourselves (including through the eyes of others in the room). To LOOK at the stories and struggles of those we’re building with. This is uncomfortable. It’s challenging. And it’s incredibly important.
Human beings, as a general rule, are terrible at looking. An impaired ability to look (you might call it emotional or relational blindness) makes it awfully difficult to build relationships, negotiate the emotional challenges of the world, deal with difficult people in our lives, and be responsive to what’s actually going on around us (as opposed to what we’d like to see going on).
Work on it. Spend some time looking: As you walk down the street. At the people you spend your time with. At yourself. What do you notice?
Feel free to share any thoughts in the comments section.