Recently I was blown away by a couple of illusions I was shown online. They were viral sensations years ago – so I am behind the times – but they have left me completely astonished.
Two of the illusions are images whose colors vary depending on who is looking at them. One is a tennis shoe that appears either teal/grey or pink/white, and the other is a dress that looks either white/gold or black/blue. There is also an audio illusion where one listener may hear “Laurel” and another may hear “Yanny.” These phenomena are being studied and there are various theories as to how and why the variations happen.
I am both shocked and fascinated by these phenomena. These incredible audio/visual experiences demonstrate how we can all see and interpret the world in different ways – literally.
This divergence in viewpoints reminded me of a quote from the poet and artist William Blake on how people see things. He wrote:
“… I see everything I paint in this world, but everybody does not see alike … The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way. Some see nature all ridicule and deformity, and by these I shall not regulate my proportions; and some scarce see nature at all. But to the eyes of the man of imagination, nature is imagination itself. As a man is, so he sees.”
I do not believe Blake is promoting his anti-religion/relativistic views in this instance. (I would not have quoted him here if I thought that.) In this instance I think he is simply expressing the same profound realization that the audio/visual illusions have shown me – people perceive things differently.
As human beings, we encounter people, creatures, and landscapes, and have shared experiences. We gain similar knowledge, yet we can interpret reality in drastically distinct ways. But even recognizing this does not mean our perceptions are going to be accurate. It is possible to deceive ourselves into accepting illusions or perceptions as reality. We must not, however, lose sight of the fact that absolute truths do exist. This observation has caused me to more carefully examine how I think, live and make conclusions.
What Influences Us?
Whether we realize it or not, our past experiences, personalities, desires, inner dispositions, and assumptions all impact how we see the world. We are influenced by joy, optimism, laughter and hope. But we are also affected by fear, anxiety, resentment, self-doubt, shame and traumatic experiences. Our relationships within our families, our educational experiences, how we respond to successes and failures, and how much we have been loved by others all have lasting effects.
We are also vulnerable to deception, even self-deception, because we are fallen creatures. We perceive errors as truth and are moved by disordered desires and selfishness. And we are tempted to live in an illusory world by the distortions of our post-modern culture in which individualism, autonomy of the self, relativism, scientism, materialism and indifferentism are all exalted. We are even prone to calling good evil and evil good.
I am not suggesting all this defines us, gives us excuses for sin, or determines what is true. These illusions do not justify, in any way, the relativistic mindset of our culture. But this does highlight the fact we are each unique and, from the moment of conception, various factors influence how we see the world.
Blake’s statement, “As a man is, so he sees,” is a far-reaching observation. It applies even to questions of faith, the meaning and purpose of life, how we see ourselves, how we make decisions, and what we see as good, true and beautiful.
The audio/visual illusions re-awakened me to the fact that we all can see things differently – and even be fooled as to what is real. Since seeing them I have been doing some soul-searching.
Is Our Mental Landscape God-bathed?
Because of our distinctness, none of us see the world in exactly the same way. So we need to be more attentive to avoid falling prey to false perceptions and dangerous illusions. But what does it mean to see the world “rightly”?
In his book Theology and Sanity, Frank Sheed writes:
“The test of anyone’s mind is what is in his mental landscape. And it is not even enough that we should see the same things as other people plus the things the Church teaches. Even the things that we and they both see will not look the same or be the same … It is like a physical landscape at sunrise: it is not that you see the same things that you saw before and now find yourself seeing the sun as well. You see everything sun-bathed. Similarly, it is not the case of seeing the same universe as other people and then seeing God over and above. For God is at the center of the being of everything whatsoever. If we would see the Universe aright, we must see it God-bathed” (p.27-28).
In prayerfully contemplating how to remain grounded in a reality that is God-bathed, I have made three resolutions: to deepen my love, to grow in humility, and to never forget the extraordinariness of man.
Deepening My Love
In Spe Salvi, Pope Benedict XVI wrote: “Whoever is moved by love begins to perceive what ‘life’ really is” (27). I already know I need to love deeply, but in my soul-searching I concluded that I need to work on it more. I now realize that I need to love even more deeply regardless of the cost.
I must love God above all things, without exception, especially by resigning my will and selfish desires to His. My priority should always be deepening my relationship with Him through prayer, worship, docility and obedience. In love for God I need to listen more intently and sincerely to His words – given through the Scriptures, through His Church, and in the silence of my heart. I need to allow Him to transform me into the person He created me to be.
I now recognize that I need to be more loving to my neighbor and more earnestly foster selflessness rather than selfishness. Generosity must completely displace greed and authenticity must replace superficiality. I need to be more cognizant of the times when I am unfair, unjust, cruel and unkind. In charity, I must always see the best in others rather than focusing on their flaws and weaknesses. And I need to lovingly embrace relationships because God made us social creatures who flourish in solidarity with others.
Opening my Heart
I also need to love myself, not in an egotistical way but seeing myself as God sees me. We cannot allow our faults or our successes to define us. As such, I cannot determine my worth by societal standards or even by comparing myself to others. I am a unique child of God – a God who loves me unconditionally.
God has given me the gift of life and it is He who calls me to be holy and perfect. I must be always willing to repent when I forget who I am or act contrary to who God made me to be out of respect for the sacredness of this life I have received. In love, I also need to forgive myself of my past waywardness and never forget that God never abandons me. I need to open my heart completely to Him.
Growing in Humility
G.K. Chesterton promoted humility as one means to ensure we see the world rightly, in his writing On Defense of Humility (which is worth reading in full): “Humility is the luxurious art of reducing ourselves to a point, not to a small thing or a large one, but to a thing with no size at all, so that to it all the cosmic things are what they really are – of immeasurable stature.”
St. Augustine, however, may have said it best: “Humility is the foundation of all the other virtues hence, in the soul in which this virtue does not exist there cannot be any other virtue except in mere appearance.”
True humility appreciates the tremendous blessing of life itself and does not take anything for granted. But it is not self-deprecating or self-abasing. It recognizes the reality of a situation without exaggeration or self-exaltation. True humility acknowledges not only the value of talents but the ultimate source of these gifts as well. And a humble person listens to God’s truths rather than personal opinions. A humble person stands firm in God’s goodness even when it entails foregoing vain pleasures.
Humility is an essential attitude to see the world God-bathed. As such, I need to more often ask myself: Am I honest with who I am and how it is that I am choosing to live? Am I using the gifts and talents given to me by God to build up the Body of Christ? Do I treasure my life and the grand mystery of the cosmos that surrounds me? Am I recognizing that everything I have, including my material possessions, relationships, talents, faith, love and life, is utterly contingent? Am I being a faithful steward? And, more importantly, do I live with a mindset of endless gratitude?
Grasping the Extraordinariness of Man
Having stressed the importance of humility, it may seem contrary to now say that in order to see reality we must also grasp that we are extraordinary. But both are necessary.
In Theology and Sanity, Frank Sheed also wrote:
“Man must grasp that he is extraordinary. He is extraordinary like all creatures – there is nothing prosaic about being held in existence out of one’s native nothingness by the continuing will of Omnipotence; but he is more extraordinary than other creatures, both by what God made him and by what he has made of himself.
“Let us consider ourselves. We are made from nothing but we are not made for nothing and will never return into nothing. Without God we would be nothing, but we are not without Him and will never be without Him. He made us not only into something, but into something that is like Him; and again not only into something that is like him but into something that he could himself become, something that he thought enough of to die for. Spiritual and immortal, made in the likeness of God, redeemed by Christ, we are clustered with splendors.
“Consider man’s glory as we know it against the dreariness of man as the atheist thinks him. We have nothing as our origin, but eternity as our destiny; the atheist has a cloud about his origin but nothing as his destiny. We come from nothing, he is going to nothing. Fortunately his thinking so does not make it so. Eternity will have surprises for him too” (p. 372).
Childlike Wonder and Awe
I need to ceaselessly view my extraordinariness with an attitude of humility and love and look upon every moment with childlike wonder and awe. I must avoid seeing my life and the world as prerogatives, but as they truly are – sheer, sublime gifts from God. Knowing this, I cannot greet any aspect of creation with an attitude of entitlement or with a desire to manipulate or abuse. I must care for and enjoy all that has been given to me.
When life tries to make me cynical, skeptical and discontented, I must resist. And I cannot become forgetful of our human greatness. If I am plagued by doubt, disappointment, sadness, weariness, loneliness, desperation, anger or other wounds, I need to guard myself from letting this darkness distort reality. Whatever life experiences mold me – whether positive or negative, uplifting or depressing – I cannot permit them to quash my astonishment of the wondrous mysteries of life and the cosmos.
My Beholden Heart
While I see a gold and white dress, teal and grey shoes and hear the word “Laurel,” a very good friend of mine sees a black and blue dress, pink and white shoes and hears the word “Yanny.” This left me a little distraught for a time, seeing how my mind can fool me to reality. But I have now accepted that these subtle distortions are a part of life and are harmless.
I have been reminded that in life there will be dangerous distortions, misperceptions, and errors that I will encounter. I need to defend myself against them by more often asking myself the critical question about reality: am I seeing the world God-bathed? To ensure that I do, I have become re-committed to loving more deeply, to having profound humility and to living with a heart beholden to God for the extraordinariness of all creation, especially human beings.