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FAITH + IDEAS =: last updated 01/25/2012


Seeing in the New Year

Volume 5, issue 1                                 January 25, 2012
Faith + Ideas=  . . . an e-conversation with the faculty of Gordon College . . .

By Jonathan P. Gerber

New year resolutions are curious things. Some people seem to know that they matter while others say they don’t. As a psychologist, I think both perspectives reveal how often the things we say we know are really the things we choose to see, and that what we might need in the new year is merely to see new things.

Here’s what I mean: Some people believe that the new year provides an important opportunity to bring change into their own lives. They see the new year as a fixed deadline by which to finish personal projects and set new goals. Those who celebrate the Chinese new year know that each year is a different time altogether. Still others acknowledge that the change in year—whenever it is—mostly means nothing but they go along with the crowd and set resolutions anyway because it seems like a good idea. So, we resolve to eat less, pay more attention to our children, exercise more.

We react to the new year out of a sense of knowledge. And our personalities uniquely skew the incoming information so that we each see, and don’t see, different parts of the world.

Yet people can disagree on what they know because, as psychologists have long recognized, we all see the environment through a different lens. Swiss psychologist Carl Jung, for instance, suggested that 16th-century disagreements over the nature of communion were caused by fundamentally different ways of seeing the world. The bread and wine was either the physical presence of the Lord, or simply symbolic. Consequently, Jung noted something about our nature that we often forget: our personalities are not ‘defined’ by how we act, but by how we see.

In other words, so many of our cultural, developmental and personal traits are actually just different ways of seeing situations. At the cultural level, when Easterners are shown a picture of small background fish and large foreground fish, they often see the small fish. Westerners who view the same picture see the large fish. Cultures see differently.

Developmentally, we teach children what to see in the world. Children don’t see the invisible barrier that separates the customer’s space in the front of McDonald's from the no-go zone out the back; we teach them to create an invisible line they are not to cross.

Even at the individual level, lonely people often perceive that others see their loneliness, while non-lonely people actually see lonely and non-lonely people as equally normal. Clinical disorders are often extreme distorted perceptions, from the anorexic who perceives his body as much fatter than it actually is, or the psychopath who can’t see fear, to the schizophrenic who may see things that aren’t there. The consequences, of course, can be tragic. But we all have the capacity to construct views of the world that don’t always match reality.

And yet, seeing what others don’t see is one of the wonders of life. It’s why we use the phrase “he must see something in her that I don’t.” It’s what made Descartes love cross-eyed girls. Nonetheless, transforming the way we see the world in certain ways can be costly: do we ever stop to think about how much of the world we don’t see? That we don’t see the fish for what they are? That the boundary line is only a created one? That people don’t see that we’re lonely?

The way we see, then, determines how we act and we act in the most sensible way given our perceptions.

Obviously, we need people who can help us see things differently. At the end of my undergraduate thesis, my advisor took me out for a celebratory lunch. I looked at the menu and ordered a hamburger. He said, “When you have lunch with me, you don’t order the hamburger.” I looked again and had my first laksa. I’ve never seen menus the same way again. Jung might say that I just acquired the trait of openness, and I did it by having someone help me see.

Many of our New Year’s resolutions are about how we will act. But what if we forgot about what we are resolved to do, and asked instead what we might see in the New Year? Maybe then we’d be able to act in new ways, and we might really pay more attention to our children.

Jonathan P. Gerber is an assistant professor of psychology at Gordon College in Wenham, MA. Originally from Sydney, Australia, he and his wife and their two children live in Hamilton, MA.

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Jonathan Gerber