Saturday, February 26, 2011

Seeing is Being

The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness! (Matthew 6.22-23)

Trusting Darkness

It’s Oscar® weekend, and like students cramming for finals, Walt and I are rushing to catch nominees we’ve not yet seen. Thanks to various association memberships, we’ve got most of them on DVD, which saves a lot of time running to theaters. Yet the discs remaining in this year’s to-do stack intimidate us more than any in recent memory, because what’s left are dark—in some instances, very dark—movies: 127 Hours, Winter’s Bone, Blue Valentine, The Rabbit Hole, Animal Kingdom, and Biutiful. We’re not sure we have the fortitude to wade through so much complex emotion, stress, and loss in 48 hours. To a large degree, current events have more than occupied our minds with crises, tragedy, and conflict. After newscasts of tyrants firing on protesters, the egregious ploy to strip Wisconsin workers’ rights, the Christchurch earthquake, and so on, we’ve put off looking at grimmer nominees. “I don’t want to see that” has been the standard answer to suggestions we put one of the unseen discs into the player.

The human spirit abides only so much pessimism and grief before it rebels. A persistent onslaught of negative thoughts, emotions, and experiences rapidly depletes reserves of light and hope it intuitively taps into to counteract darkness and fear. When we’re at wit’s end with no hope in sight and someone shows us grace or causes us to smile, we say, “Thanks, I needed that.” It’s no exaggeration. We really do need it. Our spirits soak up the light to combat darkness. Yet we’re ill advised to rely on another’s grace and optimism for light. We have no guarantee cheer and encouragement will come from an outside source. While waiting for them, we easily become obsessed with darkness. Our sight becomes infected, incapable of detecting light. We begin trusting darkness, acclimating ourselves to its deficits and dangers, and anticipating its deceits. We grow suspect of light and laughter. “Thanks, I really needed that” turns into, “It’s kind of you to try and cheer me up, but…” By then, our spirits have surrendered the will to rebel against darkness. They’re too weak to crave light’s regenerative power. They need resurrection. Before we reach such a dismal stage, however, we should take Jesus’s words in Matthew 6.22-23 to heart.

We Are Cameras

“The eye is the lamp of the body,” Jesus says. “If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!” While His message is clear, modern technology provides us a more apt metaphor to impress His teaching in our minds and memory. We are cameras. We automatically record and archive everything we see—not only in the literal sense, but figuratively and emotionally also. Our vision extends beyond natural sight. It’s endowed with perceptive and interpretive capabilities to distort and misjudge what we see. We, in turn, control where we look, what we focus on, our feelings about what we see, how those emotions alter the image, and, finally, meanings we attach to it. Over time, we develop what we might call a visual style much like actual photographers. The parallel places Jesus's concept readily within reach.

Let's try an imaginary exercise. We'll look at three pictures and name the photographer. The first is a low-contrast, black-and-white image of a sheer cliff with a narrow margin of clouded sky above. The second—also black-and-white, but starkly so—is an expressly homoerotic close-up of two muscular arms clasping a lily in powerful hands. The third, shot in saturated color, portrays a famous actress as Marie Antoinette surrounded by adoring courtiers. Who are the photographers? In order: Ansel Adams, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Annie Leibovitz. Each of their styles is famously recognizable. But what defines them? Subject matter is most obvious. Their images are born from personal passions and interests. Yet ultimately their perspectives and opinions determine how they view what they see. Adams regards nature as vast and overwhelming, yet reassuring; its permanence comforts him. Mapplethorpe finds paradoxes in gay sensibilities—strong and tender, visceral and refined, convoluted and simple. Leibovitz expresses fascination with celebrity by mocking celebrities in endearing ways; outlandish art direction and perfectionism mask a joke (and indictment) about taking stardom too seriously.

If Jesus proctored our little exercise, one imagines Him asking us, “How do images you create and views you express in what you see define you? What captivates your eye, and why? What perceptions and opinions impose themselves on your sight? Is your visual style healthy, affirming, and illuminating? Or is it fraught with anxiety, negativity, and unhealthy darkness?”

Reinventing Our Style

Since we view the world as we choose, seeing surpasses believing. Seeing is being. Where we look, what we focus on, and how we manipulate sight to reflect our attitudes decide our character and the way we live. If our eyes are consistently drawn to darkness—to deadly ideas, looming shadows, and harmful impulses—we become living archives of defeat, fear, and sinful desires. This is what Jesus means by, “If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!” If that’s our struggle, reinventing our style—investing the effort to discipline where we look, what we focus on, and how we perceive and interpret what we see—provides vital light for our spirits to grow and endure. “If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light,” Jesus promises. Vision is a selective process.

The original Greek for “healthy” means “generous,” while “unhealthy” means “stingy.” Each situation we face is an opportunity to give or take, comfort or curse. All circumstances are circumstantial. Personalities are merely perceived. They can’t define us if we define them. How we view them determines their meaning, influence, and importance in our lives. Healthy, generous sight opens our eyes to light’s presence in darkness. Unhealthy, stingy sight obscures light. What we choose to see is what we choose to be.

Where we choose to look, what we decide to see, and how we manipulate our vision determines our character and how we live.

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