What do the Beatles, "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," being ignored in church and the poor have in common?
They all are about not seeing what is in front of us. They illustrate the unilluminated. The whole lot gives examples of cortical blindness. This is when the eyes work but the brain cannot see.
As the Beatles sang: "I'm looking through you, where did you go? I thought I knew you, what did I know. You don't look different, but you have changed. I'm looking through you, you're not the same."
Looking through someone is not seeing him or her for who they are or their needs. To further illustrate brain blindness, Douglas Adams, in his whimsical "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," creates a space vehicle that is cloaked. It achieves this amazing state of invisibility because it is powered by "Somebody Else's Problem or SEP." People bump into it without even noticing it is there.
"An SEP is something we can't see, or don't see, or our brain doesn't let us see, because we think that it's somebody else's problem. ... The brain just edits it out; it's like a blind spot. If you look at it directly, you won't see it unless you know precisely what it is. Your only hope is to catch it by surprise out of the corner of your eye. …
"This is because it relies on people's natural predisposition not to see anything they don't want to, weren't expecting or can't explain."
There are psychological explanations for this blindness to others.
Sometimes it has to do with the effect of the crowd. If no one screams, then the whole mob is calm. If one person sees a crisis and emotionally transmits the message, then all the people around that person feel the danger. Another reason is the whole experience is threatening. Instead of closing our eyes we shut our minds.
My brother-in-law and I were attending a church meeting made up exclusively of men. We were strangers there to worship with his son and his family. The lesson for the group was on service to others. There were shared personal examples of men in the room caring for others.
Afterward, no one came up to us to welcome us. We were invisible. Craig and I weren't even tiny blips on their radars. They were looking though us, and we weren't even poor.
The "invisible poor" are all around us. By feeling personally invisible to good people made me think about the poor amongst us who go to their jobs, many menial and tough, do the work and come back to their poverty.
They can answer honestly when there are shouts to go get a job. They did, but it still doesn't cut it. Wages haven't kept up with needs. So the mother goes to work to help the family and leaves the kids behind.
For some, that still doesn't permit the American dream to become real. So they work longer or get a second job. Then as a last resort as a family, they start to borrow to stay even. There is a layoff; the house payments come due; they can't keep up; the bank forecloses. The family is evicted. They are not seen again.
The question then is how do we stop looking through people, how do we de-cloak "Someone Else's Problem," how do we see as well as speak about charity and how do we make the invisible poor either not invisible or not poor?
It is forgetful courage. To be brave enough to say hello to a stranger, one has to forget his or her own self-consciousness. To be strong enough to help with someone else's problem we need to neglect our impulse to run away and instead strive for total amnesia of ourselves.
We need the fortitude to speak up when there are economic injustices. Forget the Beatles; remember Humphrey Bogart, "here's looking at you, kid."
Joseph Cramer, M.D., is a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, a practicing pediatrician for 30 years and an adjunct professor of pediatrics at the University of Utah. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.