Thursday, February 18, 2016

How we see

When I was in junior high, there was a popular joke that made the rounds during lunch and recess. Here's how it went:
Two penguins are sitting in a bathtub.
One of them says to the other, "Please pass the soap."
The other one replies, "What do you think I am, a radio?"
The person telling the joke nearly always added, "Get it?" and waited for you to laugh. If you didn't get the joke the first time, the joke-teller would repeat, slowly and laboriously, "What do you think I am... a radio?" as a prompt.

If you don't get it, don't worry: there's nothing to get. The whole point of this "joke" (and a number of similar variants) was that it was an exercise in social pressure, to see if you could make someone else feel uncomfortable or stupid enough that, rather than asking over and over again for an explanation, he or she would pretend to "get it" and laugh heartily at a "joke" that wasn't funny and had no punchline.

Now, I told you that story to tell you this one.

You might remember the Magic Eye craze of the 1990s. (If you don't, fear not; you didn't miss much.) For a while there, it seemed like everywhere you went you could find books, posters, postcards, T-shirts, mouse pads, and other whatnot for sale, covered with random dot autostereograms purporting to have 3D images hidden in them. You could see the images, everyone claimed, if you just knew how to alter your focus correctly.

Random dot autostereogram by Fred Hsu. Borrowed from Wikimedia.
And for a long time, I quietly thought all the Magic Eye stuff was a complete crock, because I could not see the images. Oh, I tried the various focusing tricks that people suggested -- cross your eyes slightly, focus your eyes on a finger held in front of you, pretend you're looking at something far away -- but nothing worked for me; no hidden shape ever suddenly snapped into my vision. No matter how long or hard I stared at a Magic Eye poster, all I saw was brightly-printed visual noise, like the computerized equivalent of a Jackson Pollock painting. So I started to assume that autostereograms were the visual equivalent of "Two penguins are sitting in a bathtub," a sort of Emperor's New Clothes trick wherein people claimed to see things that weren't really there because they didn't want to admit to their friends that they couldn't discern the hidden pattern. But the truth was, there was no hidden pattern to discern, nothing deeper to "get" about Magic Eye images; clearly I didn't see the 3D image because there was nothing there to see. Or so I assumed.

Until one day I was hurrying through the mall, busy and distracted and on my way to some store or other, and there was one of those pop-up kiosks selling more Magic Eye crud, and as I passed the poster for a split second SO HELP ME I SAW A DOLPHIN. It startled me enough that I backed up and looked again. Nothing. But I remembered the shape of what I'd seen fleetingly before, and I stood there trying to focus -- and there it was again, hard for my eyes to hold onto for more than a second or two, but still definitely the outline, in what looked like reverse bas relief, of a leaping dolphin.

It wasn't a crock. I just hadn't known how to see it.

It seems to me that faith isn't a matter of making yourself believe in something you don't think is true. Rather, faith is a way of seeing -- yourself, the people around you, the world, the cosmos and its Creator. For many people, this particular way of seeing doesn't come easily or naturally, and thus it may be very tempting to assume that you don't see any grand design to existence because there isn't any grand design to see, that it's all meaningless. If you feel this way, believe me, I do understand. And I don't expect you to accept this on my say-so, but I'll say it anyway: life is not merely a fake joke with no punchline. There's more to it than random noise. Be patient, learn, think, meditate, experiment, pray. Yes, even if you aren't sure about God's existence. Find a private place where nobody will intrude on you, where you can have a personal conversation of the sort you'd carry on with a friend you trust. Listen. It may take a while, and you may only catch short glimmers at a time, but there really is more to life than what can be seen on the surface of things. Seek, and you will find it.


MarieC said...

Very nicely put! (as usual!)

Soozcat said...

Thank you.

Candice said...

This reminds me of an essay in Adam Miller's "Letters to a Young Mormon." He talks about how from his observation, for some people, faith is intuitive, and others not. We might for various reasons believe one way of being is preferable to the other, but he argues against that. It's a gift for belief to be something we readily turn to, but it is also a gift to have no assumptions about the divine and be so open to authentic experiences.

I still have never seen one of these images :)