Praying to find the blindingly obvious

Presidential Blog by Dr. Gerry Turcotte, President and Vice-Chancellor at St. Mark’s and Corpus Christi College, University of British Columbia

Recently, I noticed a height chart next to the exit door of my local wine shop. This isn’t the first time I’ve shopped there, but it’s the first time I’ve notice the 7-foot ruler, conspicuously glued to the door frame.

From the scuff marks and scrapes it’s clear the ruler has been there for years, used as a guide, apparently, in case of robberies, so that staff can identify the height of a fleeing thief if necessary. It made me wonder how many similar things are hidden in plain sight that we by-pass every day?

I don’t mean visible but functionally hidden, like the “placebo buttons” on many elevators that look like open and close buttons but are merely there for impatient riders to press to keep them distracted. Rather, I am thinking of stunningly obvious objects that pass most of us by, until they are brought to our attention, after which it’s impossible to miss.

One of these, for me, was the Amazon logo, with the arrow beneath the word that I’d always interpreted as a smile. It was designed, however, to emphasize that the company wasn’t just a bookstore anymore but sold every product under the sun — hence the arrow that points from “a” to “z.” There are countless clever examples of this in company logos from the Tour de France, which includes a stylized image of a person riding a bike using the letters o u & r, to the complex Toyota symbol that includes every letter in the company name.

In one of literature’s most famous examples of this, The Purloined Letter, Edgar Allan Poe’s detective Auguste Dupin solves a pernicious crime by uncovering an incriminating letter hidden in plain sight, on a card rack that anyone can see. The police, assuming the blackmailer has hidden the valuable letter in an ingenious hiding space, ignore the obvious. Dupin reads the room, and the individual in question, and finds the compromising evidence.

Poe’s detective is widely credited with inspiring Arthur Conan Doyle’s even more famous creation, Sherlock Holmes, whose specialty was seeing what was in plain sight that mere mortals inevitably overlooked.

There are a wide range of theories to explain this human phenomenon, from inattentional blindness to Freud’s notion of cryptamnesia, where one initially forgets an idea only to be shocked when it returns to us at a later, more opportune time. The fact that Freud himself was guilty of plagiarising this very idea through the same process is a case in point.

The theories of our inattention have been attributed to everything from busy, over-loaded minds to defense mechanisms, to built-in prejudices that wire many of us to notice only those things we value. Hence the propensity of the well-to-do to ignore their servants or, more generally shared, the ability so many of us have of being blind to those who surround us and who are most in need.

At a workshop I ran once for those volunteering in shelters, a student asked one of the homeless men what he found hardest about living on the streets. His answer wasn’t what any of us expected. “Being invisible. No one sees you.”

One of my favourite passages in the Bible is found in Hebrews where we are asked to be attentive to strangers, “for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it” (13:2). Indeed, the Bible reminds us that we are surrounded by angels, who look out for us, who care for our children, who help us find our better selves. How sad that so many of us fail to see them, because of our busy lives or our many preoccupations. There is, however, an almost foolproof antidote to the blind spots in our weary minds — prayer.

It may seem simplistic, but we have been given an instrument of extraordinary power and resilience to help us displace the clutter that impairs our vision or blinds us to what matters most. It is a tool of great simplicity and so democratically available that any of us, deserving or otherwise, can mobilise it to great effect. Jeremiah reminds those “who have eyes but do not see, ears but do not hear” (5: 21) that it is time to pay attention to what matters. After all, none are so blind as those who will not see.


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