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From Vol. 3, Issue 9, September 2021

What we see ... and what we don’t


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“Seeing can help us understand the urgent need to try to do something. I realize I can only do what’s within my power, but I hope I’ll find ways to learn and act,”

Selective seeing

I’ve been thinking lately about what I call “selective seeing”. It’s what we notice in our surroundings, and what we don’t. It’s what seems invisible to us, versus what is obvious to others.

It happens on scales both small and large. For instance, when it comes to clutter around my home, I often have trouble seeing it. Some days it pops right out at me, in a discouraging way. But other times, it takes effort to notice the excess stuff is there. The leaning Tower of Pisa stack of books beside my bed; the cache of pens littering my desk; the junk mail piled on the coffee table; piles of laundry overflowing from the space next to the washer; my kids’ backpacks and athletic equipment strewn by the door; I could go on.

It is the same with lots of things, and many are much more serious. Our brains get used to seeing someone sleeping at the train station. Or tents lined up by the underpass. Or incidences of local violence, part of a pattern. Or news reports on refugee camps. We get used to seeing it.

Turning the power of sight on

I now recognize that I need to turn on my power of sight and awareness more often, at home and in the world.

At home, I’m working on giving away items to those who can use them. I don’t need all this stuff, and neither does my family. In fact, my children are good at recognizing that a lot of stuff is random and unnecessary. They can see the beauty in recycling things. Instead of a mall trip recently, my daughter selected clothes from Goodwill.

Decreasing our stuff is a Stoic tradition

Decreasing our stuff is a Stoic tradition. It is easier said than done in our marketdriven economy, where we are surrounded by ads, offers, and sales on stuff. But the stuff doesn’t make us happy, especially since the psychological phenomenon of “hedonic adaption” holds true: We soon get used to having a nice thing, and it doesn’t really have an impact on our contented feelings anymore. Perhaps the thrill of the chase for stuff could be replicated elsewhere in our lives, by challenging ourselves to do something creative, athletic, social, or service-oriented.

Opening up to the world

And in the outside world, I also want to see and acknowledge more. I have started by reading books and articles about difficult topics, including climate change and environmental challenges, and humanitarian crises at home and abroad – including the pandemic and its inequitable impact.

Seeing can help us understand the urgent need to try to do something. I realize I can only do what’s within my power, but I hope I’ll find ways to learn and act, and my kids too. It’s a key reason why I support project-based learning. When my children pick a real-world problem to understand better, they learn the most.

Piercing through unexamined impressions

This kind of approach to our world stems from the Stoic effort to pierce through unexamined impressions – the BS – on the outside, and to come to grips with the reality underneath. Epictetus reminds us that those who follow philosophy need to see beyond the superficial and to understand deeper truths. He advocates that we shed the unnecessary and focus on what matters – our choices, our actions, our path towards virtues. This isn’t always easy or pleasant, but it’s the right thing to do.

Meredith A. Kunz is the author of The Stoic Mom blog @thestoicwoman on Twitter