The Better Letter: What I See

Do you see what I see?

If you have any Christmas spirit in you at all, you have a “grown-up Christmas list” of some sort. A better world seems a bit more plausible at Christmas somehow, and it is something “devoutly to be wish’d.”

This year, however, I’m scaling back my demands. It’s 2020, after all. I have a single (and devout) Christmas wish.

Getting to it requires a bit of backstory.

That vaccinations have begun and that they are so promising is wonderful and amazing news, as discussed last week. It means that there seems to be light at the end of the pandemic tunnel. Finally.

That’s especially good news for medical personnel who have been working tirelessly and around the clock for many months. As I talk with them around the country, I sense an attitude shift. In March and April, they were scared but determined, more than willing to meet the crisis head-on and do their jobs.

Today, lots of them are angry because so many of the patients they see are patients at all because of selfishness – not wearing masks, traveling, gathering unnecessarily and in large numbers, not taking common-sense precautions. Soon they will be treating patients who refused to get vaccinated. They are at risk and don’t want to die on account of somebody’s selfishness.

So please, for the sake of our medical workers, take good care. Wear masks. Avoid unnecessary travel and groups. Wash your hands.

That’s a simple, smart, and kind Christmas wish everyone can and should grant. Please.

In the meantime, appropriately for Advent, we wait.

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What I See

We read the world wrong and say that it deceives us. 

A photograph of a dress became a viral internet and global sensation in the winter of 2015. It became the “drama that divided a planet.” The phenomenon began on the small Scottish Isle of Colonsay when a mother snapped a picture of the garment and sent it to her daughter as a possible dress to wear at the daughter’s wedding. However, based upon the picture, there was vehement disagreement over whether the dress was blue and black or white and gold, which disagreement only got more contentious as more and more people saw it and expressed their opinions. 

The Science Editor at Wired saw what was happening and said to his Executive Editor, “Can you believe people are making a big deal out of this like they don’t know what color it is? I mean, it’s obvious it’s blue.” The Executive Editor, looking concerned, replied, “It’s white.” 

What was actually going on is described here.

There were 4.4 million tweets about #TheDress in less than 24 hours. Esquire called it “The Single Worst Day on the Internet in 2015” (a llama chase was involved, too). It even led to a sci-fi novel and some soft-core Harry Styles fanfic

Among those weighing in included Taylor Swift (“It’s obviously blue and black”), Mindy Kaling (“It’s a blue and black dress. Are you f—ing kidding me”), Anna Kendrick (“If that's not White and Gold the universe is falling apart. Seriously what is happening????”), Katy Perry (white and gold), Reese Witherspoon (also white and gold), Lady Gaga (“it’s periwinkle and sand”), and Julia Louis-Dreyfus (“It’s blue and brown. Period. Next?”). Kim and Kanye were a split family.

The controversy over the dress is a perfect metaphor for the internet age. We quite literally (used correctly for once) can't agree on what we're looking at when we’re looking at the same thing. 

Our beliefs about the way the world is may seem compelling or even self-evident, but it ain’t necessarily so. As scientists say, the threat of “overinterpretation” – thinking you know when something remains uncertain and “seeing” something that isn’t there – is a major problem. 

Our perception of the world is highly intransigent. What we see, hear, and feel is strangely persistent. Even when we recognize (at least intellectually) that what we are perceiving is “wrong,” we can’t just mute our perceptions. We saunter through life convinced that we are essentially right, essentially all the time, about essentially everything. If we thought we were wrong about something, we’d change our minds. 

Our default status is personal omniscience. We all (begrudgingly) concede that we’re wrong about things, perhaps many things. But we can never come up with current examples. We can all recall our past selves and the many mistakes we made and crazy views we held. But that was then, this is now

Age is irrelevant in this context. Young people, older people, and everyone in between all recognize they had changed a lot in the past but are convinced that they would change relatively little in the future, regarding the present as a watershed moment at which they have finally become the person they will be for the rest of their lives. This idea applies much more broadly, too, even if some still deny it. As the literary critic Harry Levin expressed it: “The habit of equating one's age with the apogee of civilization, one's town with the hub of the universe, one's horizons with the limits of human awareness, is paradoxically widespread.”

When the things we see are more complex or less clear, the disagreements become greater, even when the stakes are depressingly small. As with the dress. And, since facts without interpretation are useless, when the interpretation isn’t obvious, the problems compound. Our interpretations of facts are vitally important too. Indeed, as the English poet Stevie Smith recognized, the same facts can be interpreted in diametrically opposed ways, with potentially disastrous consequences. 

Stephen Jay Gould, the celebrated 20th-century paleontologist, in his most famous work, argued persuasively that prejudiced scientists routinely allowed their social beliefs to color their data collection and analysis, especially when the scientists’ beliefs were particularly important to them. He then went on – inadvertently but conclusively – to prove his thesis in that very work. After all, as Russell Warne argues, “if you believe that the universe is made of cheese, you’re going to build a cosmic cheese whiz detector.” 

Ursula K. Le Guin’s brilliant opening line to her groundbreaking sci-fi classic, The Left Hand of Darkness, is directly on point: “I’ll make my report as if I told a story, for I was taught as a child on my homeworld that Truth is a matter of the imagination.”

Politics provides ready examples. For Republicans, lying to the American people is impeachable when Bill Clinton is the liar, but not when it’s Donald Trump. For Democrats, President Clinton’s ongoing and dreadful treatment of women is excusable while President Trump’s is disqualifying.

But the problem extends far beyond politics and it involves more than mere hypocrisy. In her account of the death of democracy and the rise of totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt explained the attack on truth

“In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and nothing was true….”

The goal is for the masses to respond to every truth claim and every challenge to truth claims with the indifference of Pilate: “What is truth?

While I recognize that anything like mutual agreement on these points is impossible, here is what I see, hear, and know this Christmas season.

Do you see what I see?

There is a hint of hope. Way up high in the sky. A glimmer of light. A star. And this one looks like a vaccine.

Do you hear what I hear?

I hear music. A song. Singing. Try to sing along.

Do you know what I know? 

A child is the center of the story.

Frank L. Culbertson, Jr. was the only American off the planet on September 11, 2001. He boarded the Space Shuttle Discovery for a 125-day mission on August 12. On the morning of 9.11, Culbertson called flight surgeon Steve Hart on the ground to check-in. Dr. Hart replied, “Well Frank, we’re not having a very good day down here on earth.”  

For too many of us, if we think of God speaking at all, much less speaking personally, it’s as if from a spaceship. Notice how Culbertson described his 9.11 moment. 

“About 400 miles away from New York City, I could clearly see the city. It was a perfect weather day all over the United States, and the only activity I could see was this big black column of smoke coming out of New York City, out over Long Island, and over the Atlantic. …I [saw] the second tower come down.”

Every 90-minutes the shuttle passed over the United States. Culbertson said, “Every orbit [I] kept trying to see what was happening.” Utterly impotent, all he could do was take pictures of the smoke plume.  

We tend to think of God as trying to see what is happening from a position far removed from Earth, like on a spaceship, out there somewhere. Impotent. Aloof. God seems to be silently orbiting or as the poet Malcolm Guite writes: “Our prayers just break | Against what seem like walls of silent stone.”

A view from space isn’t helpful when buildings are collapsing on people we love…or on us. Watching is not helping. It is not being there. Unlike quantum physics, watching events on earth changes nothing. We need real human touch. We need a person.   

This Christmas, as candles flicker, pushing back the darkness (barely – just barely), Christians worship a Baby-God who comes not in power but in exposed and fleshy vulnerability.  

The Christian God does not orbit our lives taking video from outer space. He runs head-long into our chaos and pain, exposing Himself to all the mess and sorrow of our lives.  

Christmas tells us the silence has been broken, the darkness rolled back, and the creator of the universe has joined our fight. This is what we proclaim on and for Christmas. It is not about a cute baby. It is about a Baby-God who comes to redeem a broken world. Emmanuel — God with us.

Listen to what I say!

“Said the king to the people everywhere, | ‘Listen to what I say! | Pray for peace, people, everywhere, | Listen to what I say! | The Child, the Child sleeping in the night | He will bring us goodness and light, | He will bring us goodness and light.’”


Totally Worth It

Every December, Christians are given new reasons to see Christmas in less significant terms. We are told Christmas has been overcome by hedonistic commercialism. While the enemies of the Church are all too happy to have Christians believe such nonsense, in his new book, The 25th, Joshua Gibbs argues that Christians have every reason to celebrate Christmas with the confidence they are participating in one of the oldest and deepest mysteries of God.

A Yves Tanguy painting was found in an airport dumpster after it was forgotten by its owner. “The old adage of ‘one person’s trash is another’s treasure’ rang particularly true last week when authorities recovered a Surrealist painting worth about $340,000 from a recycling bin at Germany’s Düsseldorf Airport,” the Associated Press reported.

This is the best thing I saw this week. The most inspiring. The most insightful. The smartest. The most predictable. The most insane, unless it was this. The funniest, unless it was this. The scariest. The craziest (in a week of insane). The stupidest, unless it was thisthis, or this. The loveliest.

I’ll Be Home for Christmas is a Christmas standard and one of my favorites. Its point of view is that of an overseas soldier during World War II wishing he was home for Christmas. It is lovely, melancholy, and poignant. It was originally recorded by Bing Crosby in 1943. This version is a lovely acapella rendition by Rascal Flatts. Merry Christmas, with special good wishes and prayers for those who won’t be going home — far more than usual this year. 

Benediction 

This week’s benediction is a new version of a Christmas classic by Terri Clark with Vince Gill. I will miss singing it in church this Christmas Eve, candles held high.

May each of you, your families, and your loved ones have a blessed and merry Christmas.


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Contact me via rpseawright [at] gmail [dot] com or on Twitter (@rpseawright). Don’t forget to subscribe and share.

Thanks for reading.

Issue 43 (December 18, 2020)