The topic of how we see things has come up lately. In one class I am taking, we’ve shifted from learning about quantitative to qualitative research. In phenomenological research, arriving at the participants’ lived experience is the primary goal. Data can be collected by interviews but for that to happen, the researcher, as the research instrument, needs to first reflectively examine his or her own positions and thoughts to ensure they do not color findings. This recognition that we each see things differently is obvious when we speak about the lenses through which we see big emotional experiences of others. If we’ve suffered the loss of a loved one due to drugs, for instance, someone else’s story of the same might hit us more viscerally than if we have not gone through that kind of experience.
In an undergraduate philosophy class, I remember the professor discussing how if a long table was in an unlit room near sunlight streaming in a window, and we stood around it, we would all describe it differently, its color, its size even. This exercise wasn’t just so we could question how we see things, but to make the point that it isn’t always easy to agree on the essence or the core of what we see. Because we each see it differently.
This reminded me of the Indian story of the blind men and the elephant. Six completely different ways to describe the animal because each touched a different part of the animal. A trunk a tusk, a leg…each man contradicts the other and yet each is correct. Understanding this, how can anyone ever claim absolute truth? We can’t.
Two weeks ago, in the context of the news, I wrote, “To eliminate people from my universe just because I do not agree with their views, will leave me in an insulated universe in which I am unaware of any but my own. That’s not for me. I want to understand how others think, even if I disagree with them.” The broader our view, the more we can understand. This holds true in many contexts.
I used to wonder how others saw me, and I thought if I could collect their views and put them together, I could find out the essence of myself by finding out what they think. Of course, I know that only I can figure out who I am. But there is something to be said for gaining an understanding of how one is viewed by asking those doing the viewing. That’s one way to use focus groups to help companies finesse their branding.
One of my sons recently started to learn each week’s Torah portion, but without commentary. In looking at the text, in Hebrew and in English, wants to arrive at an uncolored meaning, to try and find its essence (reminding me in an odd way of my undergrad thesis paper on Walt Whitman in which I refused to read secondary criticism of Song of Myself, because the poem was perfect and should not be criticized). This led me to think about how it is said that the Torah has seventy faces, different interpretations. And if part of the reason scholars and commentators and students interpret it differently has to do both with its text and with each person’s own perspective then how do we ever get to the Torah’s essence? Perhaps we don’t. Perhaps we each need to find out own truth. This wonderful piece about understanding the richness that opening up to different perspectives allows two very different Torah students contrasts with that of qualitative researchers who try to remove their biases from their understanding.
Regardless if one acknowledges one’s lens or tries to remove it when interpreting what he or she sees, what is important, I think, is recognizing that there is no singular truth. There may be a core or essence of to any individual being, event, object, but that does not guarantee that everyone sees it. Or that anyone does.
Make room in your worldview for others’. Make room for doubt as well. Because both of these enrich our ability to see. (Hmmm…so I guess it’s time to find the literary criticism of Whitman.)
Photo is of Parshat Shmot and Song of Myself