Learning to See: To Look or Look Away

Part 1: Obese People

My dad always had a thing about obese people when I was growing up–and as a family of genetically thin people, they were easy to gawk at and make fun of from a safe distance. Fortunately, my mother spoke up about how distasteful she considered these reactions to the strangers across the food court, the parking lot, etc. Usually Mom would remark that such individuals often have genetic or other less-than-controllable situations underlying their weight–while my dad would observe that since no-one was born that big they ate their way to that size, obviously doing this to themselves through what could only be spectacular ignorance or lack of discipline. I would often laugh with him but later nod thoughtfully to my mother’s critiques. In either moment, the most important rule was “don’t stare.”

Part 2: Homeless People

Around the time I started to ponder these things somewhat critically, I also started at a privileged Catholic high school which was located in a rough part of downtown by historical accident. Students made jokes about prostitutes roaming our campus at night, we were regularly panhandled going to and from the parking lots, and in a move which Pope Francis would certainly have discouraged, the administration removed the outdoor benches to keep the homeless from sleeping in our plaza. I did find the homeless particularly unnerving. I had a good friend with a phobia for the “hobos” the way other people are afraid of spiders who told spooky tales of close encounters. It was hard not to stare at them from the car on the way to school, even though staring is rude.

Thanks to my spirituality and the repeated and emotionally conflicting encounters with the obese and the homeless, I eventually devised a new response when tempted to gawk or comment about an outsider to a fellow person of privilege. I would silently pray: “Thank you God for this beautiful person you made.” Disfigured, disabled, dirty, or otherwise jarring people became a constant challenge for me to recognize their humanity, and sometimes pause for additional prayers. “Please protect this woman at the street corner and help her see that she is beautiful.” “Please guide this man toward whatever help he needs from the neighborhood’s social services.”

Only as I write now am I recognizing that the appropriate next step toward imitating the gaze of Christ on such people be working harder to answer those prayers with my own actions and outreach. Regardless, the power of looking with new eyes became wildly greater than looking away.

Part 3: Those Tempting Women

From 5th or 6th grade on, we Catholic schoolboys were told to “bounce” our eyes away from inappropriate imagery–like the lingerie section of Macy’s Sunday ads, or under-dressed beach-goers.* But our married male role-models who gave talks about such things took it for granted that we would, should, and could nonetheless appreciate the beauty God had given to our female counterparts in some abstract and less flesh-baring way. These brave volunteers had been attracted to their wives at first glance, but in a way that they appreciated or requested women covering themselves more modestly (in a way that meets ridicule in mainstream company today). “Appreciate but respect; look, but don’t look,” they advised us with tortured, indirect examples that surely escaped the majority of their audience… let alone us gay kids who were thoroughly overlooked. I assumed I was simply virtuous in my instinctive rejection of vulgar ideation about women’s bodies. But I kept on guard.

There was a woman at our church who sometimes performed liturgical dances.**  I have a vivid memory of one particular Sunday. She was dressed perfectly appropriately, and the choreography was the opposite of a Shakira music video, but as I watched her I realized I was simultaneously seeing the curves of her body. “Your’re looking at her boobs” I thought uncomfortably to myself, and my instinct was to stop watching. I had been observing a dancing person with breasts attached to her which a good boy must carefully NOT see while somehow still appreciating the dance, which I could tell was good, because it was at church, and pleasant, and gentle, and obviously did not deserve to make anyone uncomfortable at all. Several moves later I concluded that I was simply seeing her movement and her body, in a way that included the fact that she had breasts, which were connected to her in a way that gave her an unmistakably feminine body whose features extended to her shoulders, neck, face, hands, legs, and long hair. I fought back my internalized boob-ready red flags, and accepted the facts that she had breasts, that they were attached to both her and the dance, and that it was okay.

  1. All People

This all led to a revelation in my late high school years as I continued to tell myself to “bounce” my eyes away from attractive sweating joggers or underwear ads. At that point I had at least figured out I was supposed to do that for lust-inciting male bodies at Abercrombie more than the tedious Victoria’s Secret posters. But after observing (or not observing) so many shirtless joggers from the same car windows from which I’d gawked (or not gawked) at so many homeless people in the past years, I realized that I could apply a familiar prayer. “Thank you God for this beautiful person you made.”

If I remember this person is a gift from God, I think there’s a certain liberty to appreciate his body in a similar way to our gaze upon Michelangelo’s David (which was designed for a Church after all). Instead of running away from such moments, I consider them opportunities to recognize the power and chemistry of an artist whose masterpiece lights upon my gaze and energizes me.

And I feel obligated by the simultaneous attraction and subsequent recognition of the divine fingerprints on that form to make the well being of that marvelously created person what drives my behavior. Perhaps it’s appropriate to strike up friendly conversation as he rings up my groceries. I could give a compliment. I could reflect on whether my work and livelihood contribute to the common good that this beautiful stranger and I share. I could remind myself that he could easily be my next patient, or customer, or parent of a student, and each of those are in fact no-less-beautiful masterpieces of the same creator–even when I don’t like them all. Sometimes there’s nothing more to do than simply keep driving and admire a God who has done beautiful work among the summertime joggers in my neighborhood.

  1. Conclusion

My eyes are drawn to some bodies and beings, and repulsed by others. But that’s not how God’s eyes work. If our work is to see with the eyes of God, He can transform our vision of every one until we desire and actively contribute to the flourishing of all. Some of the people we encounter will help us or challenge us to do that in more acute ways than others. I like to give myself that opportunity. Instead of bouncing our gaze away from the beauty around us–whether it’s obvious or subtle–let’s look.

Jusepe de Ribera, 1951.

Jusepe de Ribera, 1951.

 

*I believe I’m remembering this particular term (bouncing) from an evangelical Christian text that follows the exact same lines of thought: Every Young Man’s Battle. It may be interesting to study to what degree my cohort’s Catholic-school sexual-education was influenced by American Catholicism’s socio-political alliance with evangelicals.

**Yes, I know liturgical dance is one of liturgically-correct people’s favorite punching bags, and that it isn’t allowed anymore… for the purpose of this post that conversation is irrelevant.

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