Saturday, September 26, 2009

Listening and seeing with humility

About a week ago I discovered something called The Little Book of Contemplative Photography, by a passionate advocate for justice named Howard Zehr.

The book is part of a series Zehr has written called "The Little Books of Justice and Peacebuilding," and was included in the series because Zehr, who is also an avid photographer, wanted people to understand that traditional photography -- which is often rather aggressive in nature (i.e. we speak of "taking" or "shooting" photographs) could also be approached from a more peaceful stance.

The subtitle of the book is "Seeing with wonder, respect, and humility," and in the final chapter he offers this wonderful observation about humility:

"In the word 'humility' I include its common usage, the idea of not taking undue credit. But by humility I also mean something more basic and more difficult: a profound recognition of the limits of what we 'know.' Such humility requires a real caution about generalizing what we think we know of others' situations. Such humility also requires a deep awareness of how our biographies affect our knowledge and biases.

Our gender, culture, ethnicity, and personal and collective histories all profoundly shape how we know and what we know, and in ways that are often difficult to bring to consciousness. Humility calls us, then, to a deep appreciation for and openness to others' realities and to new revelations."

It seems to me that Zehr has captured in this statement both what I love about photography and what drives me crazy about religions. I love that my camera has a way of seeing without preconceived notions about what is right, or beautiful, or important. My camera sees things as they are at a particular moment in time without concern for what they might actually be or do. And in looking at what my camera sees, I, too, am momentarily transported into a very clear and simple present; in this case, to a brief moment when the shadows of a dock ramp on pilings, combined with their reflections, create the illusion of ancient totems with unseeing eyes.

Photography has a wonderful way of reminding us that there can be a large gap between what we see or believe we know and what actually IS in any given moment; it teaches us not to get too caught up in our assumptions and generalizations. My children play a similar role in my life, though their reminders about my inappropriate assumptions tend to be rather less gentle than the camera's...

What drives me crazy about religions and often well-meaning religious people -- whatever their belief systems -- is their frequent lack of openness to others' realities, and often to the infinite collection of possibilities that is God, or whatever universal spirit it is that they worship and celebrate. Evangelists -- whatever they are evangelizing -- can be particularly guilty of assuming and generalizing without thought for the other; even the so-called "software evangelists" that Apple's Guy Kawasaki defined back in the early 90's. And though when we think of evangelism we think of Billy Graham and Christian Fundamentalism, there are evangelists in every faith community.

I still remember standing outside the library where I worked, sometime back in the late 70's, talking with the man who was my then-husband's Transcendental Meditation teacher. I was asking for his help, hoping he could convince my husband to treat me better, value me more, stop sleeping with other women. And his response was that I needed to take up transcendental meditation. Taken aback by his rather orthogonal response, I tried to play along, mentioning that I had been following some Zen meditation techniques. But he pooh-poohed that, saying that was all well and good but HE could LEVITATE, and had had several out-of-body experiences -- as if, were I to do that, all my marital challenges would somehow disappear.

The problem with being in sales mode -- no matter what we are selling -- is that sales mode is all about talking, and not about listening. And whenever we are talking we are making one very important key assumption: that the other person wants or needs to hear what we are saying. We talk because we believe we know what they might want to hear -- which, as anyone who is married or has children or parents or works or has any relationships at all with any other human beings knows is not always true. How many times have you been "talked at" by someone? And are you aware of the number of times you have "talked at" others? For that matter, how much of your prayer time is spent talking at God, and how much of it is spent listening?

Humility, I believe, is a critical ingredient, not just in photography, but also in relationships and in faith. It involves a willingness to be silent, and to see; not just an openness to the other-- whether the other be a photographic subject; a friend, relative, acquaintance, client, fellow worker, boss, or enemy; or a spiritual entity -- but an appreciation and respect for the ways in which they may differ from what we assume to be true.

All of which reminds me of this fun poem, called The Cookie Thief:

A woman was waiting at the airport one night,
With several long hours before her flight.
She hunted for a book in the airport shop,
Bought a bag of cookies and found a place to drop.

She was engrossed in her book, but happened to see,
That the man beside her, as bold as could be,
Grabbed a cookie or two from the bag between,
Which she tried to ignore to avoid a scene

She read, munched cookies, and watched the clock,
As the gutsy "cookie thief" diminished her stock
She was getting more irritated as the minutes ticked by,
Thinking, "If I wasn't so nice, I'd blacken his eye!"

With each cookie she took, he took one too.
When only one was left, she wondered what he'd do.
with a smile on his face and a nervous laugh,
He took the last cookie and broke it in half.

He offered her half, and he ate the other.
She snatched it from him and thought, "Oh brother,
This guy has some nerve, and he's also so rude,
Why, he didn't even show any gratitude!"

She had never known when she had been so galled,
And sighed with relief when her flight was called.
She gathered her belongings and headed for the gate,
Refusing to look at the "thieving ingrate".

She boarded the plane and sank in her seat,
Then sought her book, which was almost complete.
As she reached in her baggage, she gasped with surprise.
There lay her bag of cookies in front of her eyes!

"If mine are here," she moaned with despair.
"Then the others were his and he tried to share!"
Too late to apologize, she realized with grief,
That she was the rude one, the ingrate, the thief!!!!

Been there, done that (if not in that exact configuration).
I still have a lot to learn: I'm grateful to my camera, my family, my world and my God for their continuing willingness to teach me!


Maureen said...

The totem in the photograph is wonderful. My eye went right to it.

The poem. . . a perfect way to close this piece.

Kimberly Mason said...

Hmmmmmm. (I love things that make me go "Hmmmmmm"!) I think I will have to read through this a couple of times today...

Diane Walker said...

...only because it's so long! Sorry about that -- got on a roll and couldn't stop!

Joyce Wycoff said...

That photo is stunning ... the eyes are mesmerizing! ... and I agree completely ... beware of people "selling" anything.

Unknown said...

Diane, just to throw another light on this: my dad taught me that GOOD salespeople LISTEN for the client's needs, and then do their best to clearly and honestly show the client what they have, that might fill the client's need. My dad used to pray that his clients would be led to make the right decision - not that he would make the most sales. It's an innovative approach, but he had the trust of his clients, and he made a great living, as well. He is one of my favorite salespeople of all time - honest, and not in it just for his own good.

JoTigger said...

Thanks for your reflection and the poem. I know the story in the poem but has never seen it so beautifully written.

Listening is not easy. Seeing other people as who they really are is not easy. I also take pictures from time to time. I agree that photography helps me see from a different perspective. Thanks again for your sharing.