What We Can Do About Unseeing

homelessness photo

Most of us have heard the saying, “You see what you want to see.” This not only means that there are things we don’t see, but things we unsee.

On our way to class, we unsee the students proffering flyers on Bruin Walk. As we amble about in Westwood with our earphones in, we unsee the homeless panning for money on the street.

Student proffering flyers, the homeless: we know they’re there–they register visually–but we pretend they’re not.

What is this phenomenon of unseeing, and how can we actively counter its power over our perception in everyday life? How much of it is conscious, and how much of it unconscious?

The chief reason may be that we’re selfish. When there’s no immediate material gain for us, our willingness to see it evaporates with a hiss. If we see, we might have to accede to the responsibilities that come with it (God forbid!); perhaps, in some circumstances, seeing may even change our lives in seismic ways that we’re not ready for. We don’t seem to mind any of this when we can profit. For example, if a student were handing out free water bottles on Bruin Walk, passersby would congregate to get one, even if it meant being a little late to class. If a student were asking for something (even a bit of time), passersby would stare at some indeterminate point ahead of them and power-walk through as if no one were around them.

We unsee when we don’t want things to change. When we’re in love, for example, we unsee our significant other’s most conspicuous flaws–we crowd them out with their positive traits–in order to preserve our perfect, romanticized image of them.

When we read an article in the news about a war in a third-world country, or a scandal involving one of our childhood idols, or our favorite fast-food restaurant donating money to causes that try to prevent some minorities from civil rights, we unsee in order not to have to challenge ourselves, to grow.

Unseeing is unconscious, for the most part. We consciously see something that we don’t want to see, and then we naturally bury it, erase it, push it to our periphery.

The first thing we can do to train ourselves not to unsee is to spend more “purposeless” time. Our most worn excuse, after all, when a campaigner on the sidewalk asks if we have a moment to talk about refugees, is that we’re busy, that we’re late for something, even when we’re just going grocery shopping. Spending purposeless time, time in which we don’t have somewhere to be (time, in a sense, whose only purpose is to be aware of what’s going on around you), is the first step to noticing all the things we unsee. Once we identify them, we can begin to ask ourselves why we unsee them. What about it makes us uncomfortable?

We don’t necessarily have to take action after we become aware, but being aware poises us to take action if we so choose.

I challenge you–and myself–to spend a few hours of “purposeless” time. What do you unsee, and why?


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