On the second day of our stay with my friend Chris in his Idaho home, I was up first, badly in need of coffee. I went about collecting the pieces of the coffee pot I’d put in the dishwasher the night before and found all I needed except the lid. Where could it be? I emptied the dishwasher and searched it top to bottom.
Then I searched the counters and cupboards. After I searched every place I could think of, I concluded it must have been put in the trash. The thought of sifting through a deep kitchen wastebasket looking for a black lid wasn’t appealing. In any event, I would need coffee before I could face it. I would have to improvise.
I jury-rigged something using a spoon turned upside down, counterweighted by a towel so that the spoon would trick the filter basket into dripping into the pot. It worked.
Later when Chris was up, he too searched for the missing black lid, but to no avail.
After I’d showered and come back to the kitchen, Chris had a smile on his face.
“We see what we look for,” he said.
And he held up the white lid to the coffee pot.
Seeing what we don’t expect to see
When Chris had loaded the breakfast dishes, he’d noticed something still lurking in the otherwise-empty dishwasher. He pulled out the lid, which was just where it should have been all the time.
Can you guess that my coffee pot lid at home is black? In my pre-coffee state, I had been looking for a black lid. The white lid had been in plain sight the whole time. Not only was I blind to what I didn’t expect to see, but I had transferred my blindness to my friend when I told him I couldn’t find the black lid.
Later that morning, Chris took my son flying in his 1946 Piper Cub. I followed Chris around the plane, inspecting the cables and wires, nuts and bolts. My son was going up in this thing. (And his mother wasn’t around to cancel the escapade.) Now, I hasten to add that my friend Chris, whom I’ve known since 1993, is about as careful as any pilot can be. Meticulous to a fault. But still…
“I judge this aircraft to be airworthy,” Chris announced.
“I just hope there isn’t some white coffee lid somewhere,” was my response. He let out a chuckle. I didn’t.
Fortunately, the flight went perfectly in the blue Northern Idaho sky.
Seeing not with our eyes
Later that afternoon, I was lying in the grass looking up at the beautiful sky, watching the clouds, marveling at their beauty and wondering what I didn’t see. Wondering how my sight is rutted in deep wagon tracks and how I must see the same things over and over, while with just a slightly different perspective, I would see something different.
Corey, my son (and soon to be college cognitive-science student), reminded me that “we see with our brain, not our eyes.” True enough.
And I suppose the same proclivity serves us more than it shackles us. My mind’s vision allows me to enjoy a beautiful landscape out the window of the airplane, while my little camera quite objectively picks up the glare on the window instead. Our mind’s vision lets us see a tiny red traffic light while driving the electric fireworks of the Las Vegas Strip at night.
But with our talent for seeing what we’re looking for, we also miss important discoveries that we’re just not looking for. We miss qualities in people that prejudice screens from our mind’s view.
“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly,” wrote The Little Prince’s Antoine de Saint-Exupery. “What is essential is invisible to the eye.”
I’d like to hear from you, dear reader—what do you see? And what things in plain sight have you missed for a time, only to see later?
Most of all, which books have changed how you see?