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Sunday, January 13, 2013

Lenses, Filters and Walls

“Before I built a wall I'd ask to know What I was walling in or walling out, And to whom I was like to give offence. …”

As 2013 opens, guns are in the news again, with the tragic mass murders by a lone gunman inside a Newtown, CT elementary school.  Ordinary Americans are numbed by the senselessness.  At the same time, immigration and attempts to reform it are also in the news.  Are the two issues seen as fairly related?

Owing his 2012 re-election victory in large degree to overwhelming Latino and Asian support, President Obama has indicated that he will seek federal legislation on a citizenship path in what is described as a “fast push.”  Together with Senate Democrats, the president will try to carve a legislative path to citizenship for illegal immigrants with one comprehensive bill.  Republicans propose to tackle the issue piecemeal.  It seems to be a marked improvement over their pre-election policy of obstruction.

Without getting sidetracked in the partisanship generated by thorny national issues, we ordinary citizens should permit ourselves to entertain a diversion into how we see things, what we are seeing, and who, in particular, has the keys to the video room.

At one time or another, we have all heard the expression of a person who “looks at the world through rose colored glasses.”  It’s meant to describe someone who is filled with optimism, sees the positive in everything, to a fault.  That someone cannot be deterred from the mission of turning an abstract idea into a reality, sometimes against all odds.

Have we ever taken the time to consider how we see things?  Our eyes are nothing more than lenses, so the eye doctor says.  Thanks to the retina and the optic nerve, they allow us to see things.  We call this vision.  Filters help us see certain things and exclude certain other things.  Walls provide the mechanism to permit some to see all things, on their side of the wall, and to deny those on the other side from seeing anything at all.  Fences are a sort of wall.

Lenses, filters and walls each influence the way we see things. Why do we have them? The ordinary citizen’s understanding of reality flows through a prism that reflects all sorts of things other than reality, self-interest being among them. Muckraking author Upton Sinclair once said that “It is impossible to make a man understand something if his livelihood depends on not understanding it.”

Perhaps, a good place to begin a discussion, and end this week’s reflection, is with an excerpt from a poem.  In 1914 at about the time of the outbreak of World War I, the Great War as it was then known, Robert Frost authored a poem titled Mending Wall.  The poem is most notable perhaps for the popular line “Good fences make good neighbors.”  But it is rather the following lines which inspire the intensity of reflection which passionate issues sometimes demand:

“Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down.”

While some walls would appear to be absolutely necessary, can we identify any in our own ordinary lives behind whose protective shadow we could benefit from some shared company?  Can we identify other walls which may have outgrown their usefulness, which by all rights should come down?

-Michael D'Angelo

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