The Lenses Through Which We See the World

Once a year I have to go see the optometrist. Each year it’s the same old tests. “What are the smallest letters you are able to read?” To which I always reply, “I cannot read the big E without my contacts.”

I’m usually laughing as I mention it because I know it’s an E but it just looks like a blob. If it weren’t for contacts and glasses, I would have a hard time believing I would still be alive today. Tough to imagine that I wouldn’t have walked out into traffic or off a cliff by this point. Thank goodness for technology and for specialists who have been trained to help people like me attain eyesight. I wouldn’t be able to function through life otherwise.

While we all may vary in our level of independence, we all to some degree or another depend on others. That is unless your a hermit tucked back in the middle of the woods. But you wouldn’t be reading this blog post if that were the case….

Anyway, many of us see specialists to help us through all sorts of aspects of our lives. Doctors, financial advisers, and gym trainers are perfect examples. But they can’t do everything for us. Even though we oftentimes rely heavily on their expertise, we almost always still have a role to play. Doctors may recommend a treatment plan, but often it requires us to follow through on the recommended modifications and sometimes significant lifestyle changes to realize the desired health outcome. Financial advisers may recommend savings plans and investment strategies to get you to where you want to be financially in the future, but it requires discipline to stay to a budget and a commitment to achieve those financial goals. Gym trainers can encourage and push you through their recommended exercises to improve your health and conditioning, but ultimately you need to push yourself to actually complete the exercises and say no to that third Yum Yum Donut.

Our wants and needs drive us to pursue the assistance of others if we are unable on our own to meet our needs. We start planning for the future, knowing that we want to help pay for our child’s tuition in the future or save for a new house, and seek the assistance of a financial planner to get there. We go through the holidays and pack on the pounds and then realize maybe I should get a trainer to lose this weight and keep it off. Recurring illnesses or pain may drive us to finally visit the doctor for a diagnosis.

Until we recognize the need or want, the need for assistance is not evident. More often than not though, the earlier the need is recognized and corrective actions are taken, the greater the outcome in the long run. Establishing good financial, exercise, and health habits at an early age is of much more benefit than waiting until later.

So this got me thinking, what want or need are people like mentors, life coaches, psychiatrists and pastors addressing? And I’m not talking about the life coach who helps you brush your teeth and not act like a snowflake. I’m talking about the life coach who helps feed you the thoughts that drive you to push through the daily grind. To get up in the morning with a purpose and be able to keep pushing through life. Because it can be a grind at times.

Now I realize there can be significant differences between all of these people. There are substantially different qualifications for being a life coach, a mentor, a pastor, and a psychiatrist. But I think there is some significant overlap in the roles these people play in the lives of others.  Paul Vanderklay, a pastor who runs his own YouTube channel, which I would highly recommend, defined his role as a pastor as “helping people align their story with the story of others and the story of the Bible.” Now, this is not necessarily a post about pastoring. For the purposes of generalizing this for all mentors, life coaches, and spiritual leaders we could replace “the story of the Bible” part of his quote with “a framework or lens through which we see the world.”

Our story can be quite complex. There have been things within our control and many things out of our control. Highs and lows. Both comedic and tragic moments. Mistakes made and incredible feats accomplished along the way. Maybe there have been unrealized dreams or everything we could ever need has been handed to us. Each of our stories, though they may share some similarities, are incredibly unique.

The stories of others, although often hidden beneath the perfect facade of social media and our “put-together” behavior in public, often have many of the same elements that ours do. Pain, happiness, hardship, joy, strife, love, peace, war, injustice… The more you listen to other peoples stories and study history, the greater sense you get of how difficult and complex this world has been, continues to be, and always will be. A visit to the Holocaust museum or a brief study of the 20th century is all it needs to be overwhelmed with the heaviness of the human condition.

Today more than any other time in history we are confronted with, more often than not, the worst of the worst stories in the world. Mass casualty shootings, natural disasters, the spread of disease, wars, kidnappings and murders, sexual predators, corrupted institutions… At no other time in history have we been bombarded with the tragedies of life from across the globe with the frequency and explicitness we do today. It doesn’t take long to see the depravity of this world and how incredibly sad and difficult the stories of humans have been and continue to be.

And this is why I love how Paul Vanderklay defines his role as a pastor. In addition to knowing your own story and engaging with the stories of others is the need to have a framework or lens through which to understand these stories. For those of you who go to optometrists you are probably familiar with a phoropter. (Don’t feel bad if you didn’t know the name for it because I certainly didn’t.)

Closeup of medical equipment in an opticians clinic

The optometrist will continue to change the lenses in front of your eyes and check your vision to see how clearly you read the letters in front of you. The very first lens used usually provides a very low resolution view of the letters, but as additional lenses get added or changed, your vision should improve assuming your seeing an optometrist worth his or her salt.

Likewise, the role of mentors, life coaches, and spiritual leaders in our lives is to help us to find a lens or framework through which we can see our lives and the lives of others in the greatest clarity possible that we can. Easier said than done, because as I stated before this world is incredibly difficult and the more you study the human condition the more complex the framework and precise the lens must be for us to function well. I think more often to not, the emotional, spiritual, and mental turmoil we all experience is almost always due to dissonance between our story, the stories of others, and the framework or lens we are using to view the world.

Maybe we haven’t dealt with an aspect of our story and really gotten to the root of an issue. Maybe we’re so disconnected from others, that our story gets out of alignment of the shared human experience or we lose an understanding of others and what it means to relate with them. Or maybe our framework through which we view ourselves and others is incompatible with our life. Maybe the lens through which we view the world is directing us in a direction that does not lead to the betterment of our story, or to a life that is compatible with the rest of humanity.

Similar to the optometrist changing out lens as they are determining our prescription, we can all be modifying our frameworks to try understand the world, and I think that’s so often done best with the assistance of others. As we talk through our lives and really dig into our perceptions of the world, the low resolution frameworks like happiness, popularity, power and money being the meanings of life will inevitably have to be replaced by higher resolution lenses through which we can see the world if we will ever be able to handle the complex and difficult stories that we all share. And who knows, maybe that new worldview that we adopt can take us beyond a state of just coping with the difficulties of life and extend to a greater appreciation of what existence has to offer.

We may never get a 20/20 vision of the world, but here’s to hoping we can all at least read the big E of life, whatever that may be, and continue to refine our worldview from there. And don’t be afraid to reach out to someone for guidance. We all need guidance whether we wish to admit it or not. Just like the optometrist is saving me from blindly walking into traffic or off a cliff, that person, or those people may help us from falling into the deepest pits of life. We have a role to play in figuring out our way but we weren’t meant to figure this out on our own. 

Unanswered Questions

People act weird sometimes… I mean, isn’t it strange some of the habits we have? All of the tendencies and social norms that we adopt as we age. They are natural reactions that are cued by scenarios that we are presented everyday and they are almost all dictated by what society as a whole has deemed “correct” or “wrong.”

Andrew Hales has a whole YouTube channel dedicated to forcing these awkward situations. Here’s a great video of him putting people in one of his socially awkward situations.

As much as I love the awkwardness of seeing how people react to Andrew trying to hold their hand in this video, I think we can easily observe these strange tendencies in an “unfabricated” setting.

The typical classroom situation where the teacher asks, “Does anyone have any questions?” is my favorite. The teacher opens the discussion to anyone in the class to speak up, and students with questions look around unable to get themselves to just raise their hand. Students turn their heads side-to-side, avoiding eye contact with the teacher, and hoping someone will ask their same question so they can get the answer without all the attention of the class. Embarrassed about not knowing everything, we are afraid of just the thought of asking a question. 

Two years ago, two big life questions were constantly on my mind. 1. What is my purpose in this life? And,  2. Why is it that no matter how hard I try, I can’t be as good of a person as I feel I should be? Up to this point, I had refused to address deep questions like this, unable to quote-on-quote “raise my hand” in life, and I enjoyed the simple life where I acted like I knew all the answers afraid to come across as not knowing.

But then I realized, if I don’t ask I’ll never know. Something has to be true. There must be an answer, whether I ask the question or not, and I want to know it. But who do you ask to answer these questions? And if many people claim no one can know the answers to these questions, why ask at all? Sticking with the classroom scenario, if in the classroom the answer to a question could determine whether or not you pass or fail the course would you ask it?

I ran into students at Penn State who lived with a purpose, and seemed to be living a good life and wanting to know what made them different I spent time with them and learned from them. I asked questions. The answer to those two questions came from people I barely knew explaining the story of Christ to me.

This is still the only answer that appropriately answers all of my questions about humanity, this world, our past, our purpose, and what our future will look like. For the first time ever I was in a classroom where I wanted to ask the teacher every question I had and could come up with. And every step of the way that teacher has followed through on answering those questions, because I asked Him.

We all have questions, and there are answers to those questions whether we ask for them or not. And by no means have I had all of mine answered. But in times of doubt He has “conveniently” had me read the stories of Gideon, David, and Thomas, who doubted the existence or plans of God also. Yet God/Jesus was patient with them and helped them step-by-step in overcoming these questions and doubts. He’s not expecting us to understand everything right away. He wants us to ask questions about Him and His purpose for this world and watch as our questions get answered.

I still don’t have all the answers, but I had found where I could get them from and I have never felt more fulfilled than in these moments when I learn from Him. Every day that I spend time reading His Word more truths become visible and present. I believe we all have those moments where truths about this world “resonate.”

Andrew and some of the individuals in that video embraced the awkwardness and some didn’t. I find the ones who play along or have fun remarks afterwards are more enjoyable to watch than those who are annoyed. Are you willing to embrace going against the social norm of staying quiet? Are you willing to ask questions? Are you willing to ask the tough questions? To come across as the person who maybe doesn’t know everything? Because that may be the most freeing decision you ever make in your life. It was for me.

“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened.”                                                                                                      – Matthew 7:7-8 –