Getting Past What We Think We See

I’m fascinated by this optical illusion.

I’m so sure of what I’m seeing here—a gray and white checkerboard—I can hardly believe the demonstration showing how it’s not that simple. Certainty encourages me to dismiss any new information. It limits what I am able to perceive. I can barely take in the information that challenges my understanding because I “know” what I saw. But it turns out I was wrong.


I wouldn’t want to go through life never trusting my sense of how things are. I need to rely on my perceptions to get through the day. But I also know from experience that certainty can be misplaced. Past choices that seemed perfectly clear at the time had far more room for questioning than I was able to see. I know now that I knew less than I thought I did back then, if you can follow that convoluted sentence.

But I was generally doing the best I could with what I had. Who can do more than that? It’s what we all do. But it would have been better to ask if there were more to know than what meets the eye. I might have made better decisions if I had been willing to test my assumptions.

Yet even in our lack of wisdom and experience we are given an inner sense of when things are out of balance. When our misperceptions matter, life provides indications that we need to pay closer attention. They accrue until we finally notice.

Within us is a life force, a holy spirit, urging us forward and helping us to transcend illusion. Often it speaks with a still, small voice that helps us know what we need to know, even when thoughts and perceptions are confused. Occasionally it jolts us into waking up to what is going on around us.

Could it be that this clever video is speaking to us of such things, even now?

And if you still don’t believe the squares are the same color, check out this demonstration:
The Checker-Shadow Illusion

The Volunteer Blues – What Work is Worth Doing?

The world rests on work that happens outside the realm of work for hire. Family life, civic and religious life, community life of all kinds would disintegrate without it. Society benefits richly from the people and organizations bolstered by such work, but most of the rewards for doing it are strictly internal.

The dedication, creativity, and strength required to raise a family or tend a volunteer organization are unrecognized in economic terms. The work of counselor, organizer, or visionary is valued in the marketplace but seldom acknowledged, much less rewarded, outside of it. Even our president was dismissed and derided by some for his time working as a “community organizer.”

In a world that measures worth by paycheck and position, it seems miraculous that people give so much of themselves to monumental effort that is economically worthless and socially invisible. There may be some intrinsic payoff, but a great deal of the work is anything but rewarding—at least in the short term. Yet they, we, choose to do it. Amazing.

Responsible people take on difficult situations in all kinds of contexts, many of which are frustrating, unpleasant, and hurtful. “It’s part of the job,” they say, acknowledging the balance of good and bad that is part of their position and livelihood. But when the “job” has no pay, no cumulative value as professional experience, and little or no appreciation, it’s hard to maintain that equanimity.

Martyrdom in the service of anything less than the ultimate good seems to me like wasted life. And much of the time it’s hard to know what such an ultimate good would be. But when there’s a choice about what work to do, it makes sense to exercise some discernment about that choice.

I love Bob Dylan’s song, “You Gotta Serve Somebody.” He tells us “It may be the Devil, or it may be the Lord, but you’ll have to serve somebody.” It’s true, but then there’s the problem of figuring out which is which.

What really, truly counts as working for the greater good? What is the measure of good work? What is worth serving? These aren’t rhetorical questions. This week, I really don’t know.

Everyday Rituals

Lately I’ve been thinking about how a task can be transformed by a sense of ritual. Ritual lends weight to what we’re doing. To clear space in our mind and schedule for a particular task is to acknowledge its importance. It says there is nothing we should be doing instead, and no reason to hurry through this moment on the way to the next thing. That alone is a relief, and all too rare. Ritual invites us to be fully present, to set aside anything else pulling at our attention and focus on the one thing in front of us.

Cooking dinner can be that kind of experience on days when I clear the countertops, turn on “All Things Considered,” and set aside the time to chop, saute, and simmer. Other days it’s a chore I squeeze in between other things, hurrying on to the next thing I need or want to do. The difference is whether I make space around it and become present in doing it. Ritual encourages presence, attention.

I remember as a child watching my father polish his shoes. He had a box where he kept everything he needed: the round tin of dark polish, the cotton rag saturated with its orange-brown color and oily scent. He would spread a newspaper on the floor to mark his work space, then open a tin and rub the cloth over it in a circular motion. After he worked the polish into the leather he would take up the wide wooden brush with soft black bristles, placing his hand inside the shoe to hold it and brushing with long sweeping strokes until it shone. I can still hear the thump of the brush against the shoe, the whisper of bristles across its polished surface. Then he folded the newspaper and threw it away, carried the box and gleaming shoes back to where they belonged.

I remember my mother preparing to iron, sprinkling clothes with water from a Coke bottle fitted with a metal-capped cork, its rounded surface filled with holes like a salt shaker. There was the muted sparkle and splash of water inside the glass bottle and the dark spots of moisture on cotton. She rolled up the clothes for the dampness to permeate, with an extra sprinkle over the bundle for good measure. With its hiss and rising steam, the transformation of rumpled fabrics into crisp, clean, finished laundry, ironing didn’t look like a chore. It looked like an important part of the week.

As I didn’t have responsibility for doing them, those tasks never appeared to be a burden. Instead they seemed special, meriting the time set aside for them. To a child fascinated by its particular tools, the job was clearly important. It offered elements perhaps of pleasure, but at the very least of satisfaction. I liked ironing handkerchiefs and helping to brush shoes.

I don’t know if my mother and father brought the same attention to their tasks that I brought to watching them. I was free to do something else if I grew bored, while they had to see the job through. And having raised a family myself now, I’m sure they had other things on their mind. Perhaps it’s easier to be mindful about someone else’s work.

Nonetheless, I think that how they went about their work taught me something of value. Ritual creates space around something important. When we turn the pages of a magazine, a few words on a large field of white rivets our attention. In the same way, we can put focus on the most important aspects of our lives by giving them breathing room. We add meaning to our lives when we notice what they contain. We elevate our work when we set it apart through the simple rituals that center us in the moment and ground us in our lives.

What are the tasks that give you satisfaction? Are they enhanced by a ritual of some kind?