356. Believing Is Seeing

November 12, 2014

When my family moved to Seattle in late August of 1947, I was eager to see the Rocky Mountains for the first time. As we drove west through flatlands in eastern Colorado, I expectantly peered from the back seat through the windshield, but saw only low clouds blocking my view of any mountains. The clouds grew taller as we approached, and for half-an-hour I grew more desperate to view the Rockies. At last, when I began seeing trees and valleys among the clouds, I realized that I had seen the Rockies all along, but their being snow-covered in late August prevented me from recognizing what I was looking at. Had it been winter, I would have seen them sooner. My summer expectations got in the way of my seeing.

It’s not so much that seeing is believing as just the reverse: believing is seeing (or hearing). “It’s true if you think so,” says Italian dramatist Luigi Pirandello. We see “what our prejudices presume to be there,” says Thoreau. Travelers on Cape Cod once reported a black man holding a white man at knifepoint by the side of the road, a scene that turned out to be a reporter from a local radio station holding a microphone to the lips of a man he was interviewing. In going through old National Geographics from the nineteen-teens and twenties, I have come across photographs of bare-breasted African women nursing babies under the title, “Black Madonna,” suggesting a verbal veil of social acceptability to make the image suitable for a prudish and mostly White middle-class readership.



(Copyright © 2009)


Clouds, nothing but clouds. I am looking for a first sight of the Rocky Mountains, but all I see through the windshield is clouds. Flanked by my brothers and two dogs, I am in the back seat of the car. My parents are in front. I am leaning forward, looking down the road toward the horizon. Which is hidden by clouds. The family is moving to Seattle. We’ve gotten to eastern Colorado, which is flat, offering long views ahead. Of clouds. I keep looking. Ten minutes. Fifteen. Half an hour. Nothing but clouds. I am about to burst with disappointment when, suddenly, the white clouds, those same ones I’ve been peering at all the while—turn into snow-capped mountains. The Rockies! I see them! Nobody says a word. They’ve seen them all along.


Strange business. Looking, but not seeing. Or seeing wrongly. Then in a blink seeing rightly. We project what we know onto what we see, and if we are unprepared for novelty, we see the same old, same old. The people elected Bush-Cheney (according to the Supreme Court), not once but twice—because of the war in Iraq. Fooled ya, suckers! Suddenly we realize Bernie Madoff is a crook! All along we thought he was a pal. Everyone did. Ha. He madoff with their dough. Suckers! Me included (as if I knew Bernie, or had any money to invest). In my own way I’m a sucker. Maybe you are, too.


Fresh out of high school, I’m in Nespelum, Washington, on the banks of the Columbia River. This time there are clouds too, but I’m not looking at them, or at the river. I’m too busy digging a hole in the ground. Looking for Indian artifacts. The Chief Joseph Dam is under construction, and this ground will be flooded. I’m a volunteer with a team of archaeologists from the University of Washington. Three feet down, I think I’ve found something. Hard, white. I switch from trowel to whisk broom and toothbrush. There’s a suture. Looks like a skull. Brush, brush. Blow, blow. See, it’s rounded, like a dome. Brush, brush. Gotta be a skull. We haven’t found any human remains on this dig. I’m gonna be first! Brush, brush. The dome has a funny edge. Brush, brush. A ridge, like Neanderthals had. This has gotta be really old. After hours of brushing away a few grains of sand at a time, I have much of the dome exposed, ridge and all. A real archaeologist comes by to see how I’m doing. Whatchagot there, Steve? Looks like some kind of turtle.


Rightly or wrongly, seeing is believing. Along with Bush-Cheney and Bernard Madoff, even my own eyes can deceive me. And so can yours. Who can we trust? Who indeed? John D. Rockefeller’s dad played a game with him in the kitchen. Little Johnny’d climb into a chair, stand up, then jump toward his father. Who always put his arms out to catch him. Until the one time he didn’t. That’s to teach you not to trust anybody, not even your father, he said.


That’s a hard lesson to learn. Not even my own eyes? Not even your own eyes, or your own ears. What can I say? If you want to work with your consciousness, you might as well enjoy the adventure of learning how to do that. It won’t be easy and will be full of surprises, but learning how to double check your senses and the reality they present for your approval will be well worth the effort.


Then you can move on to establishing a working relationship with your unconscious mind, which will take even longer. The more we learn about the workings of our senses, the farther “reality” drifts off into the middle distance. Sadder perhaps but wiser, we are left to contemplate the view from where we are standing.