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. Continue reading