depth perception

In high school, I had a handful of very good teachers who disciplined me in the subjects of English literature, creative writing, math, history, Spanish and anthropology. I remember them—the best ones having wicked senses of humor—as much, if not more than the details of the subjects they taught.

Very recently, I reconnected with my anthropology teacher, Thad McManus, on Facebook. I didn’t know him well and I doubt he remembers me at all, let alone as one of his most sophisticated students. I was the jock who sat near the front of the class with wet hair in an over-sized varsity letterman's jacket.

Over the years, I’ve often recounted something I learned in McManus’s class, something about perception. We’d been assigned a book to read by an anthropologist who had spent years living amongst a Pigmy tribe inhabiting the dense rainforest of Central Africa, Indonesia or Papua New Guinea, I can’t recall which. The author described a day when he took his friend, one of the tribe’s elders, beyond the rainforest onto an open plain, a place where no tribe member had ever been. The two men perched themselves atop a high bluff overlooking a valley where, off in the distance, a large herd of water buffalo were grazing. The Pigmy elder reached out and tried to pinch several buffalo between his fingers, thinking they were ants. It became clear to the friends, and later to my classmates and me, that the Pigmy people hadn’t fully developed their depth perception due to the density and sameness of the forest in which they lived.

This image stuck with me and has, over the years, helped me to understand how often people’s perception is limited to their own experience, to who they are and what they see in their immediate surroundings, in their neighborhoods, on television, in the books they read and in the news sources they choose. I witness this kind of insularity when it comes to my ten-year-old son Calvin, a rarity who is severely disabled, can’t talk, walks poorly and peculiarly, wears diapers and is often prone to fits of mania due to impending seizures and to the powerful antiepileptic drugs he must take. I sense it when strangers stare at us—even glower at us—when he is shrieking or simply stumbling past. I sense it with people's puzzlement over the fact we didn’t have more children when we found out Calvin would be disabled. I sense it when people say everything happens for a reason or that Calvin's suffering is meant to teach us something, or when doctors tell me not to overreact or bristle at my insistence. I sense it when people question my hypervigilance, my frustration, my impatience, my anger. Because of their shortsightedness they aren't seeing the big picture—why I am who I am, why I act how I act, why I parent like I parent—because they don’t live with and love a disabled, chronically ill child. Thankfully, there are the insightful ones who choose to look beyond their own experience to see and feel our world and, thus, can empathize.

So, too, I sense a deficit of earnest perception surrounding the recent events in Ferguson—the shooting of the unarmed black teenager Michael Brown, the subsequent decision not to indict the white police officer who killed him, the protests, peaceful and otherwise, and the fallout in the news, on talk radio, in coffee shops and classrooms and on social media. What has come into sharp focus for me is that many Americans aren't seeing past their snug environs and are in great denial of our nation's systemic problem with racism. Others don't appear to give a shit. What I see a lot of is this: standing ground; slinging armchair indignities (think Archie Bunker); blaming and dehumanizing the black victim; characterizing the Ferguson killing as an isolated incident thereby rejecting the epidemic of racism; derailing the discussion of white cops killing unarmed blacks into a reproof of black on black crime (itself a product of the systematic oppression of minorities); ignoring our nation’s gross, racist inequities in housing, education, employment, income, law enforcement, imprisonment and sentencing and escaping down the comfortable path of scapegoating.

But when we step out of the shadows and the shade of the forest we can see the bigger picture, one that is vast, varied, colorful and perhaps difficult to understand unless we are willing to take a closer look. With a morsel of scrutiny we can see an establishment that is stacked against an entire race, a people systematically exploited in the days of slavery and whose descendants, for whatever lingering bitterness, profit, power or cruelty, continue to be quashed.

Thirty-three years after my high school graduation, I find myself back in the classroom, though not to study anthropology. I'm here to tell Calvin's classmates about him and about epilepsy. When I visit the students I always end our discussion by saying that Calvin is the best person I know, in part because he doesn't have a mean bone in his body. I tell them to be kind to others who are different from them, because it is a great big world out there and no matter who we are, what we look, sound or act like or where we are from, it is important to understand and remember that inside we all have the same heart. To do this is to beautifully utilize the full depth of our human perception, which allows us to see other worlds and realities with open eyes, minds and hearts.

photo by Michael Kolster


  1. This is so beautiful and true.

  2. What a remarkable, deep commentary. This needs to be read by everyone. (Try SUN)

    Thank you , Christy.

  3. What a beautiful photo of you thinking beautiful thoughts.
    Thank you for sharing them with us.