The Courage of Seeing
I see a black man walk his dog in the neighborhood. What appears as a normal activity to some of us is now unveiled as nothing less than a portrait in courage. Thus revelation shocks the privileged: “I did not know”; and it succors the oppressed: “Now you see what I know.”
For eyes distressed by this new witness and tempted to look away – for there are temptations and distractions in these days – the prophet John of Patmos says, “Get some salve from the All-Seeing and anoint your eyes that you may keep perceiving.”
Notice, for example, the 70-year-old black woman in Petal, Mississippi, who strides to city hall every day leaning on a walker to take up her post against the mayor whose hateful words revealed generations of pain. “I’m here because I have six grandsons,” Lorraine Bates told The New York Times. “When they put their knee on George Floyd’s neck, they might as well have put it on my grandson.”
Her witness, formed by the witness of others she observed in her youth, now observed by us: What courage to not turn away when eyes averted may scope a safe place or a hopeful horizon, some relief. Yet she said, “As long as I’ve got my health and my strength, I’ll be out here every day.”
After these days pass and we look back on this apocalyptic time when the virus tore the gauze off our ancient wound and one more act of violence against a black body was enough to fill the streets with cries of lamentation and anger, certain images may remain in our corporate memory and even be revered. Signs of protest held aloft. Fists raised. Knees bowed.
The media shows these images, but it cannot take in the whole of courage. It is for us to see more. A neighborhood out of view gathers expectantly to step into an uncertain city. A family mourning in private the death of a loved one to Covid-19 looks out the window to see what’s next. A nurse makes her way to the hospital through debris, and what smolders in her eyes kindles her heart.
It is for us to see more, to risk seeing more. “Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” asks the Spirit through the prophet Isaiah. “I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” To risk seeing more is to step outside “the things of old,” the familiar vantage points, the fitted lenses, the safe vistas that confirm our sight for the one-time price of a confession.
But the prophet speaks of a new creation, not a clean conscience, the latter being the aim of the dominant culture, which is sustained by the dominant religion such that we can get along with our lives. No, we must get dirty with the Spirit in the making of this new thing, for it is built not in the security of purity, the separation of sacred and profane, but in the world. What must be built are new structures, new systems, new models of making justice real. Much of the building material – talents, energy, money – are locked up in the old sacrificial system that keeps the dominant religion running. That old system even accommodates critique if it doesn’t lead to creativity.
In the coming days the sight of the new thing will not make sense to those still under the hold of the dominant culture. What they see will not fit the categories of cognition. The new thing will offend the senses. The new thing will even appear immoral, unrighteous, for it is unbound from the dominant religion, which is the meaning of “the former things” that the prophet says forget. The former things are the customs, habits, rituals and goals of the dominant religion that sustains the dominant culture. Forgetting these is a near impossibility since they comprise a total view, a worldview, a way of seeing that orders life. We almost need new eyes.
But hear “almost”; and hear “near impossibility,” which suggests another option, for another Power can break the hold, and more: this Power will make the impossible – “rivers in the desert,” provision sufficient for an alternative way – possible.
“Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” How will we respond? The prophet points to the place where we stand. The vision is neither general nor comprehensive. It is focused, particular, personal, which makes it difficult to behold like staring into the heat of a furnace. The strain may be too much. So we must be compassionate with each other to draw our attention back to this place of creativity. And brave, for courage is the salve for our eyes that we may keep perceiving.
About a decade ago somebody saw something that hadn’t been seen before: handwritten poems by the prophetic artist Langston Hughes, who died in 1967. Rare book cataloger Penny Welbourne recognized Hughes’ handwriting inside his copy of “An Anthology of Revolutionary Poetry,” included in his papers at Yale University. Her witness, formed by the witness of Hughes, now observed by us. This is the courage of seeing. It is a long view, and an urgent one.
The poet sees it this way:
I look at my own body
With eyes no longer blind –
And I see that my own hands can make
The world that's in my mind.
Then let us hurry, comrades,
The road to find.
Yes, friends, let us hurry. We have much to see.
Daniel Pryfogle is cofounder and CEO of Sympara.