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Moving back to see things in a truer light


Recently, my wife and I were fortunate enough to attend a concert given by a wonderful tenor. By a suitably mysterious act of Providence, we were seated in the area usually occupied by the orchestra, in the very first row just below the stage.

Despite our clear view of the singer, there was something uneasy about this across-the-footlights intimacy. The reason became clear when the star introduced a distinguished woman violinist.

As the tenor departed into the darkness, the spotlight shone like the star of Bethlehem on her. She wore a sleeveless formal gown and, as she raised her arm to acknowledge the swell of applause, this exposed limb revealed itself like the surface of the moon to us.

There, in the merciless light, the life history of that arm was laid open like that of a felled redwood tree. The vulnerability of the human condition -- the index of the little sadnesses that we all wear like battle ribbons -- was on display in the topography of this intensely illuminated upper arm.

The musician’s true age, all the practice, all the playing, hints of happiness and sorrow -- all could be read in the loosened struts, folds and seams of its milk white skin.

This revelation, at once cruel and tender, was granted only to those of us stationed in the trench that was ordinarily a pit for the unheeding musicians.

Soldiers on the front line, I was reminded, get such a close look at battle that they often never speak about it afterwards.

In that moment, I understood why.

I also remembered the words of a distinguished scripture professor, the Dominican Charles Callan, repeated often in his old-fashioned preacher’s voice to us in class, "Tell the truth. But not too much."

Repeat this episode with the current Miss America -- a floodlight at 10 paces -- and evidence of the imperfections, even of youth, would show up like bad news on an MRI, along with the makeup designed to hide it.

How wise, then, the old saying that we can be "too close for comfort" or that certain outcomes are "too close to call." We generally deceive ourselves when we think that we are getting at the real truth by ruthlessly inspecting everything with the closeness of the Mars robot rover.

The underside of the violinist’s arm was but a partial truth that disappeared when it was allowed to dissolve into the larger truth of the whole person before us. If we see others whole, we see them as they are, their flaws hardly crucial or final, in our judgment on them.

Blessed are they who see others whole for they shall see God.

In fact, seeing others whole is the only way we can ever see God. When we perceive people in their totality we understand how their ability to love gives them a beauty that transcends and transforms their surface looks. The truly beautiful people -- think of that little old lady in the nursing home -- provide their own lighting from within.

As a nation, we have been looking at ourselves from the first row, so close we can see only the things wrong with us. We are fed so much scandal, gossip, rumor, private detective reports, car chases, murders and murderers, all topped off with tabloid dirt, that we have almost forgotten there is good to be seen in others.

In the final week of the impeachment deliberations, the Russians tried to open a giant mirror in orbit around the earth. It failed and was allowed to burn up as it fell from the heavens.

What a symbol for the folly of trying to look at ourselves from every angle. We need a breather, we need to change our seats so we are not gazing at the makeup, hair tint, and sweat of the players all the time. Moving back a little, we will see others, in our neighborhoods and in the world spread about us, in a gentler, friendlier and truer light.

Eugene Kennedy, a longtime observer of the Roman Catholic church, is professor emeritus of psychology at Loyola University in Chicago and author most recently of My Brother Joseph, published by St. Martin’s Press. His weekly column is syndicated by the Religion News Service.

National Catholic Reporter, March 12, 1999