I’m going to let you in on one of my greatest everyday fears – it’s the constant risk of not recognizing people I have met before.
Now, I know that this is something that makes a lot of you uncomfortable too. You’ve told me. Church is one of the places it shows up the most. In fact, every time the discussion in any congregation turns to welcoming people to services, the greatest worry everyone has is that they will greet someone they should remember as though they are brand new.
They imagine the response being a sharp “I have been coming here before you were born, sonny!” And, of course, most people are much more forgiving and understanding than that. But it’s one of the things we worry about – not just because we’re afraid of being humiliated, but because we know how very important it is to be recognized, to be acknowledged, to be known.
And I worry about this especially. Every week, every Sunday especially, I meet a bunch of new people. I meet them when I’m already a bit on edge because I’m about to lead a service or a bit hyper and distracted because I’ve just finished. And so, I have said to several of you something like “I don’t think we’ve met” when we most certainly have. And you’ve very kindly said “well, actually, we did – but just briefly.” Thank you for understanding. It would be easy to take forgetting your face for not caring, and really, I really do care very much for every person who comes in our door.
My trouble with faces is a very, very mild version of a more serious real disorder called prosopagnosia [pro – sop – ag-nose’-ee-uh] – or more simply, ‘face blindness.’
People with true face blindness cannot recognize faces at all – even of people they know well. In severe cases, they can’t even recognize their own reflection in a mirror.
Recently, researchers studied a group of people with face blindness to test whether they judged beauty in the same way as others.
They did not.
They could not see the attractiveness that so-called normal people see. They rated everyone pretty much the same.
There’s something frightening in that and yet something absolutely wonderful. For such a person, Brad Pitt, Johnny Dep and I would be on equal footing. Everyone would be judged on something much deeper than some transient physical beauty.
Now, before we jump to a trite conclusion about the superficiality of judging people by appearance alone, we might look to the words of Jean Kerr, who said:
“I'm tired of all this nonsense about beauty being only skin-deep. That's deep enough. What do you want, an adorable pancreas?”
Physical attractiveness will always be a part of how we relate other people. It’s a part of how we evaluate everything, in fact. Don’t we tend to prefer a beautiful flower to one that, while hideously ugly, has a lovely aroma?
Helen Keller, who lacked the advantages of sight and hearing and yet became one of life’s most astute observers, tells us that “The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen, nor touched ... but are felt in the heart.”
I have been curious lately, thanks to the suggestion of a friend, about how unsighted people conceive of and evaluate beauty.
Stephen Kuusisto, writing for the Washington Post: “Occasionally, I allow myself to imagine that I see the inestimable and charged faces that we all suspect lie just below the surface…”
The faces that lie below the surface… the true beauty within each one of us.
While I don’t imagine that the shimmering cloud of light he observes when directing his nearly sightless eyes toward a companion is the true essential beauty of that person, there is a deeper sense of beauty that we miss because we stop with what we see on the surface.
It is not that beauty is skin deep, but rather that beauty goes as deep as deep can go. Beyond the skin, beyond an adorable pancreas or even a gorgeous gall bladder.
It causes me to begin to wonder who is truly blind or deaf to beauty – those who can see and hear or those who are so distracted by the features of the surface that they can not detect what is beneath.
Fra Giovanni – an Italian priest, scholar, architect, and archaeologist who died early in the 16th century – spoke about the beauty and wonder hidden beneath the ordinary roughness of the world. This is an excerpt from a letter he wrote on Christmas Eve, at the age of 80, just two years before he died:
Life is so generous a giver. But we, judging its gifts by their covering, cast them away as ugly or heavy or hard. Remove the covering, and you will find beneath it a living splendor, woven of love by wisdom, with power. Welcome it, grasp it, and you touch the angel's hand that brings it to you. Everything we call a trial, a sorrow or a duty, believe me, that angel's hand is there. The gift is there and the wonder of an overshadowing presence. Your joys, too, be not content with them as joys. They, too, conceal diviner gifts.
Haven’t there been times for all of us when we have been surprised by the sudden realization of hidden beauty? Like noticing a single flower in a field of debris, it can bring a remarkable joy to our hearts as we recognize that there is more to a scene than what we have noticed.
This has been post powerful for me with people. When the scary-looking tattooed and amply pierced man at the bus-stop gently helps an elderly woman to board. When the harsh-looking big woman with years of tough living on her face reveals an angelic nature as she comforts a young stranger.
The angel’s hand is there beneath so much of life’s coarseness and ordinariness, but we are blind to it much of the time – not blind because we can not see, but because we do not see.
In her poem, Testimony for my daughters, Rebecca Baggett seeks to remind her tender children that, despite the world’s horrors, there is wonder and beauty to be found.
I want to tell you that the world
is still beautiful.
I tell you that despite …the slow poisons seeping
from old and hidden sins
into our air, soil, water,
despite the thinning film
that encloses our aching world.
Despite my own terror and despair.
I want you to know that spring
is no small thing, that
the tender grasses curling
like a baby's fine hairs around
your fingers are a recurring
miracle. I want to tell you
that the river rocks shine
like God, that the crisp
voices of the orange and gold
October leaves are laughing at death,
I want to remind you to look
beneath the grass, to note
the fragile hieroglyphs
of ant, snail, beetle. I want
you to understand that you
are no more and no less necessary
than the brown recluse, the ruby-
throated hummingbird, the humpback
whale, the profligate mimosa.
I want to say, like Neruda,
that I am waiting for
"a great and common tenderness",
that I still believe
we are capable of attention,
that anyone who notices the world
must want to save it.
The work we must do is the work of noticing. It is the work of looking deeper. The spiritual work is the work of paying attention, of seeing the things that are not obvious and not on the surface.
Henry Miller wrote:
“The moment one gives close attention to anything, even a blade of grass, it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnificent world in itself.”