When we were in our twenties, two friends of mine had a little sign in their living room that read, “Think that you might be wrong”. At the time, I was far more interested in discussing all the reasons why I was right about a variety of topics from politics to good eating habits.
I was teaching high school then, and the most challenging part was trying to remove the lenses through which my students saw the world around them, to help them separate what they thought they knew from what they actually saw. I would have benefited from my own lessons.
When I’d ask, “What color is a tree trunk?” They would inevitably reply “brown”. When we first learn to draw as small children, we do so symbolically. A brown rectangle with a green cloud on top represents “tree”. But when you look closely at tree trunks, you see a variety of colors. Sure, there is sometimes brown. But also orange, green, even purple.
My student’s preconceived notions seemed to most affect their ability to draw human faces. No matter how times I told them that human eyes are just about in the middle of the entire head, they had long believed eyes to be at the top (thinking of a face rather than an entire head) and were often unable to render natural-looking faces. When you’ve long thought of something one way, it is easy to read new information as confirming rather than challenging those beliefs.
The pursuit of anything noble requires an attempt to remove the lenses through which we see. Often times we replace one lens for another and confuse it for objectivity. The reach for objectivity might be doomed to fail. It may be entirely impossible. But I think the trying, the effort, the ability to question our own biases at least decreases them even if we cannot annihilate them altogether.
I’m trying to apply this eyes-are-actually-in-the-middle-tree-trunks-aren’t-just-brown concept to other aspects of my life– to people and situations I find challenging. What is the lens through which I’ve always seen this? What would happen if I just looked without searching for confirmation of what I’ve longed believed? Would I see purple and orange where I’ve always believed there to be just brown?
It is often painful to let go — for new information to threaten ideas that may have helped us to make sense of the world. But trees aren’t just brown. And when we are able to finally see them in the different lights that inevitably hit them, we get to witness deeper, greater, more complicated beauty.
I’m looking forward to my 31 days of painting coming October 1. I have a lot of preconceived notions (art related and non-art related) to try to undo, to at the very least look at more closely.
Have you ever had to face your preconceived notions about something or someone? I would love to hear about it.