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Life in a time of covid-19 - part 6: the unseeing eye

Crime drama usually has that pivotal scene where a witness is asked to recount what they saw. For the reader or television viewer this is an expected and hotly anticipated part of the story - the part where the detective will hopefully discover some small nugget upon which the investigation will turn. The unfolding story hinges entirely upon an accurate recall of what was seen. Skilled storytellers, who understand human psychology, will show how tortuous this recall can be. Ask yourself what colour of shirt and tie, or dress, the newsreader on television last night was wearing - you watched him or her speaking, between newsreels, for the half an hour or so of the programme. How accurately do you recall - not what he or she said - but exactly how they looked? When the police ask, 'What was the suspect wearing?' they don't expect their witnesses to give accurate answers 100% of the time. Witness testimony is notoriously unreliable; in cases that were overturned after DNA evidence was introduced, the judgment in three-quarters had previously been decided following witness testimony. Seventy-five percent of witnesses got it wrong!
What we see and what we subsequently remember are subject to our own personal history, our culture, our experience and our learning. In other words, to our personal interpretation. This can critically change what we actually see. How? How can we see and not see?

First, if we see at all - what we later are supposed to have seen - we interpret what we see depending on the importance we attach to that seen thing. For example, if we like ice cream, we might see the flavour and the sprinkles and the chocolate flake and imagine how it would taste. If we are  exceedingly odd and dislike ice-cream, we might later remember that the person we witnessed was eating something but be unsure what that vague something was. If we have no interest in cars, we might just see a red car mounting the pavement and crashing into a lamp-post and not the make or age or model of the car. Trying later to recall much beyond the colour is almost impossible because we don't have the knowledge about the thing we are trying to remember in the first place.

Second, memory is not a camera - it can't replay a film or stills of what we saw. It is dependent on emotion, perception and understanding and can be distorted by any of these, or all of them all at once. Stress is the big memory manipulator. When we're stressed, we don't see things that we don't need to see. Our brain is locked into fight or flight mode and notices only the things that might trigger either of these life saving responses. It is alert but alert to keep us safe. And not alert at all to the small things that don't matter. Being so alert all the time is also exhausting and this further reduces our capacity to see minor details. Nearly three weeks ago, I was in London for the day and I went to the Picasso and Paper exhibition at the Royal Academy, which was wonderful. But I was already anxious about what was coming and I wandered round that exhibition alert to anyone coughing; aware that it was a lot emptier than any other big exhibition events I have been to in recent years; and was oddly quiet - almost (viewed from today's standpoint) hushed like the shuffling crowd at a funeral. Or is that the interpretation my memory is putting on it, given what I understand now? That day, I walked further than my watch had ever recorded me walking before, so determined was I to avoid public transport. It was foolish, perhaps, to have been in London at all - and I was aware of that - but there was no lockdown then; no social distancing - just an uneasiness that things weren't right. I recall little of the actual exhibition. I wouldn't pass any witness test about the people I saw. I was desperately trying to be an island in a sea of city people. I saw but I didn't see.

Does that make sense?

What is my point here? If this ramble has a point, it's this - it comes in two parts. The first is a rant and is cautionary. The second is a helpful promise; mindful and, I hope, inpirational.

So to the rant -

Beware the unseeing eye and rail against being blinded.

Every morning, recently, over breakfast I have first looked at WhatsApp to see if any family member was up later than me last night and has sent a message that I haven't seen. No-one is ever up earlier, as they don't have an insomniac dog -

Bertie Baggins - ready to play at 6.20am -

The second thing I do, is to search twitter for the latest news - specifically what ridiculous words have come out of the orange narcissist's mouth overnight. I don't know why I find this so amusing ... engrossing ... captivating ... depressing. All I know is that I do. But what shocks me most is my growing awareness of the disparity and vile political gamesmanship that appears to have gripped much of the land of the free; where many are not apparently free at all. Not free to access healthcare; not free to receive benefits; not free to have rights that those of us here in the UK define as basic.

I am enormously grateful that we have a free press. Yes, sometimes it seems that journalists and the media are toeing a political line. But in the UK, the government, as far as I know, does not fund attempts to shut down news or adverts that criticise it. Until recently, I was naively unaware that this happens in the land of the free; it risks turning them all into the un-free. If successfully suppressed, the unfree will no longer see what is at the root of their rotten government and that government will then persist. Right now, this means that a lot of them will die. Because of ineptitude. And gross manipulation of the facts. The eye that is prevented from seeing the truth cannot save itself and sees only what it is permitted to see. Thus the orange narcissist will prevail and - unless the free are roused by those that dare to speak the truth and begin to see anew - he will win again in November.

Rant over. Breathe ... and hope quietly that there are those across the pond who will continue to push against the government line.

Bertie Baggins is a pain. A loveable pain. But a pain all the same. Except ... his early rises gift me an alone hour at the beginning of every day. And in that hour, I have the best coffee and I get to witness this

Look around you. What do you see?

No ... what do you really see? Stop for a moment. Sit down if you like and look. Notice the colours; the light; the textures and shadows. See the things that you might otherwise take for granted. Let them remind you of stories - who gave you that book; where did you buy that hand-painted mug; can you recall the touch of those small fingers that drew that picture twenty years ago?  Look at your hands. What have they done today? What will they do tomorrow? Let your eyes dwell on the things that surround you and let them see.

In the film Avatar, there is an expression that means everything - it is spiritually deep; loving; kind and respectful. It is the most significant thing that one being can ever say to another. It is "I see you."

I see you.

See yourself. See your loved ones. See your possessions. See the world around you. Pause and keep pausing to really look.
Be mindful of your seeing eye. And practice seeing fully. I promise that in these dark days this will help.

I love art. I freely admit that I don't know much about it, but I know what moves me and what I like. I am reminded of these words, said by Tilda Swinton ...

'I believe that all great art holds the power to dissolve things: time, distance, difference, injustice, alienation, despair. I believe that all great art holds the power to mend things; join, comfort, inspire, hope ... reconcile us to ourselves. Art is good for my soul precisely because it reminds me that I have a soul in the first place.'

'Comfort, inspire, hope.'

Most major art galleries are open for virtual tours - including the big ones in Italy. You can find them on-line. I am off to look for some great art. To seek comfort, inspiration and hope in seeing it.


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