Practically everyone with a computer has weighed in on The Dress which hit the Internet a few weeks ago. The dress appears differently colored depending on the viewer. To some it is gold and white. To others it is black and blue.
How can this be? How could a population of reasonable people who have passed many an eye exam see a simple dress so differently? How could our perceptions be so unequivocal and certain, and yet so different from others who see something completely differently?
Which group is right? Who needs to have their eyes examined?
Scientists explain this optical illusion with the logic of Mr. Spock (rest in peace), but their answer causes the eyes of both sides to roll back in our heads.
Better to employ The Dress as a tangible metaphor for our fully sighted human capacity to perceive, interpret and draw conclusions differently even though we’re looking at the very same dress without malice or prejudice.
Most conflict emerges when someone perceives their need (for a toy, for attention, for a right, for freedom) is being ignored or invalidated. The assumption is that if the offending party could be informed of their offense by way of volume or violence they would then recant and willingly rectify the situation.
Unfortunately, what one side labels as the offending party, is, to the other sides’ eyes, the offended group. Both sides think their actions are justified. So both groups ask, “Why is the other group so demanding? Why are they so rigid and unreasonable?”
In other words, to each side, their grievances look legitimate, logical, and obvious; whereas the other sides’ refusal to see it their way reveals them as inferior, obstinate, even ignorant.
But what about The Dress?
That there might be more than one right answer, based on one’s perception, is a key realization which could foster questions, compassion and dialogue in situations as diverse as disagreements between spouses, church fights, labor disputes, the interplay of ecological and economic concerns, even what to do with ISIS.
As The Dress reminds us, there’s more than one point of view.
This week I’ve watched in humble amazement as my older daughter parents her small children. Kara brings to her daunting call a patient empathy which interacts rather reacts.
She asks questions more often than she delivers edicts. She tries to understand tears rather than rush them into silence. She occasionally has to referee skirmishes, but rarely as an autocrat. She practices understanding rather than undercutting.
The results are 2 happy campers who interact well, share, learn boundaries, develop a capacity for empathy of their own, and count on the wise benevolence of Mommy.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the world had a global parent?
Even if some can’t go along with the idea of a universal parent, or God, can we join together in imagining what such a parent might say to us as we contend with the conflicts which pepper our daily lives?
“Use your words.” “I need you to take a deep breath.” “Let’s take turns.” “Listen to what your sister is saying.”
How might the guiding words of a universal parent, real or conjured, inform how we address those occasions when feel injured by the action of someone else, such as the unintended but predictable ecological disasters from mountaintop mining? Or whether couples can marry even if they don’t meet the prerequisites of others? Or whether one nation’s needs trump the concerns and boundaries of other nations?
After all, as Wendell Berry reminds us, this is “our only world.” At the very least those of us who claim to believe in a sacred parent ought to recognize our common lineage and advocate for the well-being of our siblings who may be more vulnerable or less mature.
Brothers or sisters who are stronger, wiser or richer should tune their ears to a voice gently guiding them toward the good of the whole: No more selling your brother or sister into slavery (as in payday lending). No more hiding the ball in business deals. No more bullying just because you have the clout. No more acting as if you don’t see your sibling hurt or violated.
Whether or not you believe in a God who is parent to all, most still detect a voice inviting patience, listening, understanding, peace. We may be color-blind, but not tone-deaf.
Back to The Dress. It was clearly white and gold, as anyone with one eye and half a brain could see. Why would anyone say otherwise?
Then one day I saw The Dress from another angle and, to my amazement, it was black and blue. The same dress.
Maybe this is why Jesus cautioned against judging others. We have a more limited view than we know. And even the view we have is only from our vantage point.
Far better to consider the possibility of black and blue than to end up those colors from a needless fight.
Joe Phelps is one of the pastors of Highland Baptist Church. Contact him atwww.HBCLouisville.org.