to see

From last August.

Often, I think about the gawkers who stare down Calvin without the slightest glance at me. They must not feel my reciprocal gaze glaring heavily into their downcast eyes, burning through their oily lids. It’s as if I’m invisible to them, the magnet of Calvin’s otherness blinding them to anything else, fixed in a state of catatonia on my bizarre child. Sometimes, I want to rush up and shake them, upset their stupefaction, wipe the sickly looks off their faces.

And then there are those who avert their eyes and usher their childrens’ glances away from my peculiar son. I remember a beautiful and horrible scene in The Tree of Life by Terrence Malick. A mother and her toddler are sitting on a blanket spread out on the grass. In the background—the neighbor’s yard—a man is lying on the turf convulsing in mid seizure. The mother cups a hand over her son’s brow to shield him from the sight. I replayed the scene to make sure I’d seen it right. The image has stayed with me and I return to it often. I wonder if this kind of sheltering is at the root of some of epilepsy’s stigma and shame, a barrier to compassion and understanding, a way of pretending it doesn’t exist.

Society shields itself from a lot of heinous images and realities. Over the years friends have told me how they don’t like seeing photos of war, of famine, of poverty stricken neighborhoods. Just this morning, I heard statistics on this country’s charitable giving. The poor and middle class give almost twice as much of their discretionary income to charity as the wealthy—a figure that didn’t surprise me. The journalist went on to say that wealthy people who live in diverse communities—in precincts where they encounter the needy often—are more charitable than wealthy folks living in high-class neighborhoods amongst other rich people. It appears true that seeing equals believing equals caring equals giving.

I suppose there are people, though, who don’t want to see certain truths because it makes them feel sad, uncomfortable, or perhaps even guilty. Some of us want our lives to be tidy, like some perfect family photo perched on the bedstand, the children all dressed in their Sunday best. In it, Sally isn't wearing her glasses, Johnny smiles closed-mouthed hiding unsightly braces, everybody says, “Cheese,” and looks happy. At the grocer we choose unblemished fruit, the latest expiration date, we pass over the slightly crumpled cereal box. We scoff at beater cars and roads with pits and ruts. We want pristine lawns and pleasant children with good, clean manners. Some of us must have the latest fashions, the newest cell phone, the oh-so-tasteful remodeled kitchen. Some of us don’t want to witness others suffering or starving or waging wars or having seizures. We don’t want to know that our kids are smoking pot, drinking beer, having sex and lying to us. Only other people’s kids do that. We judge and blame people who don’t have jobs or who live on the street because we don’t see how or why, and not because we don’t have eyes, but because we choose to avert them from unfamiliar, thorny, messy situations. We want our lives to remain unstained, to be wrapped up neatly in shiny little boxes, want to walk around with blinders on. We don’t want to feel things except golden rays of sunshine and happiness. Don’t read the news, it’ll make you feel bad.

But perhaps we need to feel bad in order to care about others. There are those of us who feel—who want to experience—all human emotions, who want to know about tragedy and its roots, embrace humanity with its crippled existence, its oddities, its mistakes, its gross inequities, just so we can right them. Some of us don’t avert our eyes from the checkout boy with Down syndrome, or the child with autism, or the drunken homeless man who smiles at us, or the woman carrying a cardboard sign asking for a handout. Who can know their reality but they themselves? And yet many judge, avoid, spurn, shun. Instead, perhaps we can see the world with the curious and compassionate eyes of a child and simply ask, “why?” Then, maybe, we can decide to do something about it.

Source: NPR Morning Edition

photo by Michael Kolster

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