Learning to see

The point is not only what you see but how you look at, from the smaller details of everyday life to the wider macro-systems. Let’s start from a very simple game everyone knows: looking at a spot and trying to see something on it, for example on clouds or ink stains. It’s a specific human skill, called pareidolia, meaning the tendency to perceive a recognizable shape on visual stimulus with an undefined form. However, ten persons will probably see ten different things in the same spot: it’s almost obvious and yet interesting, the proof that we constantly project some parts of ourselves on the world so that our perception has always got a “relational”, not objective, quality.


You can also unusually frame a picture and then look for a title. I like using leaves and shadows, but you can start from whatever you want.
For example, how would you title the picture below: the sun on the grass, a leaf in the sun or the house of shadows? What is the focus, the center around which the sense is created? Each answer could be right but the connected perception is very different.


Now take a peek from the windows of the box below: what’s inside? Try to imagine and draw the hidden object. It would be funny to compare many drawings, each different from the other and from the real object.⁣ Simple but not granted, it often concerns also other aspects of normal life, for example a discussion where you think that your idea is absolutely the only right one.

In his book The Will to Meaning: Foundations and Applications of Logotherapy, Viktor E. Frankl uses the metaphor of ortoghonal projections for explaining the complementarity of the different disciplines, that are not mutually exclusive. All the points of view together can give us “a good enough” description of the object of study, by the interation of different specific focuses and approaches. How the unity of the object – Frankl wonders – can be preserved through its different, equally true, repesentations? The difference between a rectangle (frontal view) and a circle (top view) can not contradict the existence one cylinder!

What is said for vision is also true for knowledge, he wrote. We live in an age of specialists: men who no longer see the forest of truth because of single trees. Of course we cannot turn the wheel of history back, society cannot do without specialists… So what is the real danger? Are we sure it lies in a lack of universality? Isn’t it rather hidden in the claim to totality? What is dangerous is the attempt by an expert, such as a biologist or a psycologist, to explain a human being solely in biological or psychological terms.


Some years ago I had the chance to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Gerusalem. I was nicely speaking in Italian with a very welcoming monk in the Franciscan part of the Church. Around us, as in a labyrinth, there were many other chapels dedicated to different kind of Christianities, and outside the Church, many other Churches, Mosques and Synagogues all around. At some point, it was like I saw our two figures from afar and I got the impression to be inside a box that was inside another box, in turn surrounded by other ones. Each box had many windows, of different sizes and shapes, open on different shining details of whatever we call God – as limited still valuable attempts to glimpse something too wide for any overview. What amazing, prismatic picture from up there, fragmented and unified in the same time!


Now let’s imagine we are looking together through the same window: again, we would not see exactly the same picture. Our culture and language, our family and personal experiences, are all like overlapped filters through which we necessarily look at. Most of these lens are essential parts of us. Even while using our knowledge and theories for interpreting the world, we are metaphorically wearing a special pair of glasses through which we look at.
I find that all these visual metaphors can become interesting tools for playing with children and investigating important concepts: changing points of view, focusing on a detail and then enlarging the picture for seeing where the detail is placed, wearing glasses of somebody else and lending yours.


If you are aware to have several pairs of glasses available, you can choose the most useful one for every context, from time to time, maybe getting closer to the truth. Of course we need to take a stand, but far from making it inflexible. Let’s learn how to switch, not confusing one part for the whole and using our understanding for not getting trapped in it.


Finally… My heartfelt thanks to Nona Orbach, Eylon Orbach, Shari Satran and the unknown, gentle Franciscan monk, for the unforgettable Gerusalem journey we lived together. I can imagine Nona smiling while seeing “the Italian glasses” I used for writing this post.

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