Posted by: Harold Knight | 01/04/2011

Seeing Persons in Wheelchairs; A Different Idea of Time

Whenever I’m in a 7-11 Store, I find a way to make eye contact with the clerk. They don’t want to make eye contact. It’s a threat. Or they feel somehow inferior to their customers. We are, after all, in a position of authority over them: “Act like a lowly clerk or I will make trouble. I’ll call the manager. Oh, you are the manager? I’ll never come back here!”

Virginia Satir whose “Change Process Model” infiltrated the corporate world ten years ago says in a somewhat sentimental instruction book on how to “make contact” with associates and strangers

. . .  in our childhood we learned all kinds of taboos. . . Isn’t it true that if you are looking at someone you are undressing them, or somehow invading them? Under these circumstances, the decision is not to look. If we don’t look, we make it up. I, for one, would rather be the receiver of what you actually saw instead of what you made up (1).

The rest of the book is too ’70s touchy-feely, but that one sentence is a keeper. “I, for one, would rather be the receiver of what you actually saw instead of what you made up.”

Often I assume what people see when they look at me is an aging man, not too handsome, overweight (to fitness nuts, very much overweight), somewhat eccentric, with an uncomfortable demeanor bordering (sometimes) on pathological shyness. Notice I said “Often.” Not always.

In spite of my self image, I’d rather have people look at me than avert their eyes or “look through” me. If you look me in the eye, I assume you want to see me and not my appearance.  I assume if I make even momentary eye contact with a store clerk, I’m seeing a person, not simply the taker of my money. Sharing a moment of personhood together.

Yesterday I wrote that your experience of color (red) and my experience are perhaps totally different. We can never know for sure because each of us cannot see what the other sees. I used that imponderable to approach other mysteries of our lives, of which the passing of time is, for me, the greatest. I didn’t make clear that mystery should not (or even can) make a gulf between us. I don’t have the sense as Satre did that your experience of “red” in any way threatens mine. He describes sitting in a park and, as another man approaches him

[The grass’s] deep, raw green is in direct relation to this man. This green turns toward the Other a face which escapes me. I apprehend the relation of the green to the Other as an objective relation, but I can not apprehend the green as it appears to the Other. Thus suddenly an object has appeared which has stolen the world from me . . . the world has a kind of drain hole in the middle of its being and that it is perpetually flowing off through this hole (2).

As every college literature student knows from reading No Exit, Sartre’s hell is other people. My hell is not other people. Other people may be my discomfort, but not my hell.

No Exit

No Exit

Ann Game tells of taking her young sons to school one morning. Her boys were creating what she thought was a “scene” because the younger was distraught at leaving her and the older would not cooperate in getting their backpacks on. At the moment of her frustration, an employee entering the school turned and looked at the family scene. Ann Game saw in the woman’s eyes not judgment or discomfort. When they looked into each others’ eyes, Game saw that the woman hadn’t

. . . .stopped to stare: it looked instead as if the sight she had come upon had captivated her, incapacitated her, opened the most tender feelings. The woman and I caught each other’s looks for a moment, and we smiled in recognition, unguarded smiles of what I clearly felt was love. Then the spell broke, and we all went about our business. . . When this woman became lost in this detail of the morning, lost in the vision of my children, her eyes showed that she no longer knew who or where or when she was, so am I also right in feeling, I wondered, that this everyday occurrence raises profound questions about time, space, ways of being, and ways of knowing? (3).

Game may be reading into the scene much the other woman was not experiencing. I doubt it. We’ve all had the experiences. Whereas Sartre experienced being sucked into a drain hole and being diminished, Ann Game and I understand such experiences to include ourselves in each others’ realities. And Game interprets such experiences as somehow “eternal.”

The past and future exist in the eternal as phenomena of the present. In chronological time, the past was, but in eternity it is. . . . I saw this experience of eternity on the face of the office worker. Although my children were apparently strangers to her, her fond expression showed that she saw in them a deep familiarity that she had forgotten she knew. . . even though her look was soft, it was bright and vital and not faraway or nostalgic. There was archaic recognition in her look, but also new and ongoing amazement. Whatever amazed her was present to her, and through her, but also went beyond her and included my children (4).

The clerks at the Hispanic grocery store next door and I have little in common. They are young Hispanic women, bi-lingual, hard-working in difficult jobs. Almost none of them has ever spontaneously looked at my face. Acculturation is involved. I’m an older non-Hispanic male. That’s enough to prevent eye contact. But I’m persistent. I’ve made it my business to see the young women and for them to see me in return. Several of them now look at me and speak to me. When they do, their affect changes–as I am sure mine does.

Is anyone here?

Is anyone here?

A friend lamented that in her work she interacts with people in wheelchairs. She would look away because “It’s not polite to stare.” I suggested she might look directly at them, not at the wheelchairs, but at their faces, into their eyes. Acknowledge their presence as persons. She learned the same lesson I learned with the Hispanic super market clerks. I knew this not because I am so wise but because people I love have been in wheelchairs.

Emmanuel Levinas would have us understand that

The face is . . . signification without context. I mean that the Other, in the rectitude of his face, is not a character within a context . . . a professor at the Sorbonne, a Supreme Court justice, son of so-and-so . . . Here, to the contrary, the face is meaning all by itself. You are you. In this sense one can say that the face is not ‘seen.’ It is what cannot become a content, which your thought would embrace; it is uncontainable, it leads you beyond (4).

Looking at the Other’s face is not rude. It is the way we understand infinity. A face is not a context. It is, as Metcalfe and Game say, the embodiment of eternity.

So let us not play it cool. We are saying that the principle of love is angelic, that the nothingness we encounter in the meeting that is love is annunciatory, an announcement and manifestation of our primitive infinitude . . . .With love, we return to the everyday and find there – here, now – the wonders of life. As Buber puts it: ‘man dwells in his love. That is no metaphor, but the actual truth’ (5).
(1) Satir, Virginia. Making Contact. Berkeley, CA: Clestial Arts, 1976. (Pages unnumbered).
(2) Satre, Jean-Paul. Being and Nothingness. Trans. Hazel E. Barnes.  New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992 (342-343).
(3) Metcalfe, Andrew and Ann Game. “Everyday Presences.” Cultural Studies 18.2/3 (2004): 352. (4) Metcalfe and Game, 353.
(4) Levinas, Emmanuel. Ethics and Infinity. Trans. Richard A. Cohen. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1985 (87).
(5) Metcalfe and Game, 360. Quoting Martin Buber. I and Thou. New York: Scribner and Sons, 1958.


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