Seeing Things Differently

8th grade.  Science class. First day of school.  The teacher wanted to teach us how scientists look at things differently, come up with hypotheses, and test their theories.  He also wanted us to learn that people see things differently.  And he told us that scientists had to be objective and observe exactly what they see and not what they expect to see.  He said he was going to do an experiment with us.  He said, “In a minute I’m going to hold up a picture.  I want you to describe and write down exactly what you see in as much detail as you can. You’ll have 2 minutes.  Do not speak or discuss what you see.”

This is the picture he showed us.

Young, Old woman

It was a poster and there was a box around it and a title, and what not.

So … I took the task very seriously.  I wrote exactly what I saw in as much detail as I could.  After two minutes he told everyone to stop writing.  Then he picked someone at random and said, “What did you see?”  She said, “I saw an old woman wearing a scarf and a shawl.”  Other people in the room nodded while others looked at her like she was crazy.  The teacher selected one of the latter and said, “What did you see?”  This girl said, “I wouldn’t say she’s old.  In fact, I’d say she’s very young.  And she’s wearing a hat with a feather in it and a fur coat.”

The first girl said, “Are you crazy?  She’s old with a wart on her nose and a huge nose!”  The second girl said, “Big nose?  Her nose is tiny!”  The teacher allowed these two to argue a bit and called on a few other people to share what they saw.  Everyone either saw an old or a young woman.  Except me.  I looked down at my paper and quickly slid it into my folder.  I was totally embarrassed by what I had written.  We’ll get to that in a moment.

The teacher asked people to raise their hands if they saw an old woman and counted them up.  Then he asked who saw a young woman and counted them up.  He then showed us that the picture was an illusion, and that both the image of a young and an old woman were present.  He used this example to show us that two people could see the exact same thing a different way and both were right.  It was quite a lesson for us.

So what did I write on my paper?  I wrote something to the effect of: “I see black ink on white paper.  I see lines and circles and squiggles.  I see splotches of dark ink and areas of total white.  I see broken lines and irregular lines.”  At the time I wrote that I thought that I had totally misunderstood the assignment and was so embarrassed.  But did I misunderstand the assignment?  Or did all of my classmates? 

The teacher had told us to write down exactly what we saw.  And that’s what I saw.  I had noticed right away that the image showed both an old and a young woman.  I didn’t see anything strange about that so I went deeper and decided to really look and detail what I saw because that’s what I thought he was trying to get us to do.

Years later I realized that it was one of the first times I can remember that I saw things differently from my peers.  I wish I had had the courage back then to speak up and tell the class what I had seen.  But I figured that I was the one who had made the mistake.

One thing I learned from that experience was that it was possible for two people to be looking at the same thing and interpret it differently.  And both could be right!  Do you realize what that means?  It taught me that there are two sides to every story.  That to be right doesn’t mean the other person has to be wrong.  And once you know that, it’s possible to see things from the other person’s point of view.  Which leads to understanding, empathy, and compassion.

This happens in life all the time.  You might walk past a homeless person and think “drunken derelict” and someone else might walk past him and think, “poor bastard” and who is to say who is right? 

Try seeing things differently.  Go deeper.  Don’t just look at the surface.  Wonder.  Observe.  See without presupposing.  Who knows what you’ll see when you stop looking with your expectations and start seeing with your heart.  Maybe you’ll start seeing things you never saw before. Things might appear that you’ve never seen before because you stopped looking as soon as you had an explanation.

Sometimes, when I walk past a homeless person I see an angel standing behind his shoulder.  If only he would turn and see…

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