The need to see past appearances

Is this a great movie or what?

Look closely at the picture. This is back in the early days of the 3-D craze. Look very closely. Do you notice something? Do you notice someone? You see the dapper old ladies? Second and third rows? Do you see the guy with the light-colored jacket behind her in the fourth row? Now look closely behind him. Mostly blocked from the picture there is someone, and he is very special. Do you notice? What is he doing? Unlike all his robotic fellow theater-goers he is not stone-facedly (there were oh-so-serious back then) watching whatever is on the screen, absorbed and lost in movie magic plus the magic of 3D. A double illusion! No, he is peeking, ever so subtly, over his goggles.

And in a nutshell he reveals a series of traits which are critical for the health of society. Let me outline them, as I see it:

1)      Smoke-and-mirrors & rules

Let’s face it the vast majority of our lives are lived in a smoke-and-mirrors environment. We react based on bundles of habits which are ingested (or even ) semi consciously at best, and which now serve us as filters through which we “prejudice a world” – we constantly shoot from the hip, and never even ask questions later. Reality just happens in auto-pilot, and then we die.

But the man in the picture refuses the smoke and mirrors, he wants to find out the reality, compare it with the filters, and come to some conclusions. Even if those conclusions are that he needs to put the glasses back on so he can see the images more clearly, at least he is doing so with full knowledge of the function of the glasses. He has turned reality into his tool.

2)      Self-gratification & thinking

Lately the Latin phrase “panen et circenses has become famous thanks to the book Hunger Games.  The original meaning of the sentence was a critique of the Roman people allowing their Republic to fall into ruin because all they cared about was food and some entertainment. We have not come very far.

My youngest son when he was a toddler used to say “Maybe later” anytime a certain pleasurable option was before him, and then presented with a better one in the future. Frankly I have always found his capacity to overlook self-gratification as awesome – in both senses of the word. It is great that the little one (who is not so little any longer) was able to understand that the chocolate had to wait until after dinner, for example. But it was also terrifying to be faced with my own hypocrisy, my own lack of self-control, which was obvious and easy for a 3 year old!

The gentleman in the picture is delaying his own gratification (getting lost in a good movie) and is looking for something else. This requires a higher level of thinking, of being, than the much easier route of self-gratification.

3)      Peer pressure & conformity

The volume of research on the effects of peer pressure all seem to conclude that it is pretty much the closest thing we have to an irresistible force. You can see it in the old exercise of standing in a corner and looking up into space and finding a crowd following suit, to this study in leadership (

In the linked video (worth pausing for a second to watch it, not long) I am not faulting either the “leader” or even the “first followers.” It is the reaction of the crowd which fascinates me. They simply could NOT not join. There was a scene from the Robin Williams movie Dead Poets Society (1989) where he teaches the students to walk in their own unique ways, and one of them chooses the option of not-walking (  It takes a lot of self-power to be able to not-join. I am not talking of not-joining out of spite, anger or fear (these are all words for the same thing), but rather the capacity to individually assess the proposed social activity and deliberately and conscientiously refuse to participate.

Again our friend in the picture is going against the grain. He is not sitting there and following the instructions. He wants to do things his own way, and even in a room full of people all behaving according to standards; he dares to sneak a peek. This actually requires quite a lot of self-possession.

So there you have it, this picture is an icon for me. This is what I am personally called to do, and what I have to constantly remind myself to do: peek over the glasses. Ask those questions. Be willing to be inconvenienced. Delay the gratification just a moment or two. Do not follow the crowd without first asking some questions. Do not stand in line, unless you know what you are standing in line for.

Or, to put it another way: have a plan, and make all your actions as strategic parts of it. Do not be quick to choose the pleasant option. Be responsible for your own living. By all means, get some allies who will help you, but realize that the work of living is done by yourself alone.

About spaceloom

An urban monk, and an experienced spiritual director with a Masters in Psychology. Married with two children. Want to know me better? Read my thoughts.
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