We do not want our true self to be seen; the experience is too vulnerable. And yet we do want to be seen, and be deeply loved.
We live life in this often unexamined tension of what we want and what feels safe.
I just finished an “Improv Bootcamp” class at our local Upfront Theater, here in my town of Bellingham, Washington. Deanna, the teacher, guided us into ‘’seeing being seen’’ on the first day of class. We lined up shoulder to shoulder, all 16 of us. Then she came down the line and beheld each person. We were to relax our jaw, not smile, and see ourselves being seen. Then Deanna told us to do the same thing with each other.
Most of us had been doing improv for a while, but never started a class in this way. But this was bootcamp, so we were going for it. Many students said that it was difficult; they felt quite vulnerable. And yet it really is the elemental stuff of existence: truly seeing each other and thereby connecting.
It made me wonder how often we skate along through our days, not really beholding each other. Not really being beheld.
I work for Tierra Nueva, a nonprofit in the Skagit Valley of Washington about an hour’s drive north of Seattle. It’s a bird watcher’s paradise, and this time of year people come from all over to see the tulip fields, rich stripes of pink, red, yellow streaking the land.
At Tierra Nueva we come alongside people impacted by incarceration, addiction, and immigration. I’m a jail chaplain in the Skagit County Jail and I’ve been thinking this past month even more about how our work is a work of beholding one another’s humanity. I see incarcerated men who have experienced a life where being seen means being hurt. Being seen in the courtroom, an experience that every incarcerated person knows, means feeling the weight of the layers of shame. And being seen as shameful by their family often adds the thickest, heaviest layer.
In the U.S. we spend over 100 billion dollars annually incarcerating men, women, and youth. If they are seen when they leave prison, they are mostly seen and defined by the worst thing they have ever done. The 600,000 people that return to our communities each year are not being beheld, and over half of them return to jail or prison within three years.
Solitary confinement (often called ‘’the hole” or ‘’SHU” for Special Housing Unit) is the ultimate experience of not being seen. It destroys the humanity of those it holds. When I meet people who have emerged from this experience and are coming into health, it is a miracle to behold.
In the gospel of John we see a man who was born blind. Actually, Jesus sees him.
As he passed by, [Jesus] saw a man blind from birth. And his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him…. Having said these things, he spit on the ground and made mud with the saliva. Then he anointed the man’s eyes with the mud and said to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). So he went and washed and came back seeing. (John 9:1-7)
Some of the blind man’s neighbors can’t believe their eyes. Surely this can’t be the same person. So they bring the man to the religious leaders and embark on an investigation to pin down what actually happened, to determine who has sinned, who is at fault, who did wrong. The man has to answer for himself and retell his story at least three times, and each time the religious leaders grow more intense and frustrated. In the end, ”they reviled him…. and they cast him out.”
It’s a favorite story of mine, because this story shows us that Jesus has a different focus than the religious leaders. Jesus isn’t interested in who is to blame as much as what can yet happen in this man’s life, in what ways the glory of God can yet be revealed. Whatever we focus on expands. The religious leaders focus all their energy and attention on observing the law. For them the law has expanded to such an extent that it has become the lens through which they see. Jesus focuses on the man as a beloved child of God. And that love, by its living nature, loves to expand!
Jesus isn’t interested in who is to blame as much as what can yet happen in this man’s life, in what ways the glory of God can yet be revealed.
In the very first verse of the story we read that Jesus saw: Jesus sees the man who was blind. Jesus sees the man who was likely not seen by his community. Once he is healed, we see the blind man sharing the good news of his healing to his neighbors and then the religious leaders. He is sharing his joy—Look, I can SEE!—and yet he is not received. He is not rejoiced over with singing and celebration.
God’s Kingdom came near, the blind man received sight, and the people missed it. Their brains and patterns and habits were focused on the law, on getting it right, and in this case narrowly seeing this man as blind and nothing else. So the questions that arise for me are: How often do I see people narrowly, because of what I focus on? How often do I focus on the wrong thing until it expands and blinds me? How often do I miss the Kingdom coming near? And how do I intentionally cultivate my attention so that I don’t miss it?
When we facilitate Bible studies in the Skagit County Jail, we don’t know what most of the people are in for unless they tell us. That’s not the point. Our criminal justice system has made it the point, focusing on the crime and defining people that way, but we focus instead on the potential for God’s glory to be revealed.
How often do I miss the Kingdom coming near? And how do I intentionally cultivate my attention so that I don’t miss it?
I’ve witnessed men with tears streaming down their face because they feel and sense the love of Jesus—maybe for the first time. And it feels too good to be true. (As we say at Tierra Nueva, If it seems too good to be true, it’s probably Jesus.) This love is a one that transforms hearts and therefore lives.
To love our neighbors as ourselves is to behold their humanity, rooted in our own embodied knowledge of being loved by God in Jesus. Father Greg Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries (the largest gang and prison re-entry program in the U.S.), quotes often that hymn that we usually sing at Christmas: “Then He appears…and the soul felt its worth.” In the appearing and presence of Jesus, our soul feels its worth.
To love our neighbors as ourselves is to behold their humanity, rooted in our own embodied knowledge of being loved by God in Jesus.
I recently attended a conference in Los Angeles entitled “Reimagining Justice in the Age of Mass Incarceration.” Sabra Williams, co-founder and former director of the Actors’ Gang Prison Project, told of how the organization create a safe and challenging environment for inmates through a theater program called Commedia Del Arte, which engages the four core emotions: happiness, anger, sadness, and fear. On the prison yard, she said, the only acceptable emotions are anger and numbness.
By inviting inmates to feel their emotions, the Prison Project saw an 89% drop in disciplinary infractions. As inmates had the safe and playful space to enact these four core emotions, they came to connect and tune into each other. They realized that they were able to feel sadness and not come undone. They could be scared and return to play and joy. They could be angry and control it without descending into rage. In sum, these men, including gang members, experienced enormous growth in empathy.
They were able to truly see each other.
At the conference I interviewed Kathryn Carner, the Prison Project’s director of operations. I asked, “Kathryn, what was it like the first time you went in into a prison with the Prison Project?”
For a moment, she searched for words to describe the inmates. “They want to be seen,” she finally said.
I facilitate improv workshops for people in all walks of life and I’ve witnessed with my own eyes the joy that gets unlocked when we connect, when we are being seen. Yes, there is fear of facing that vulnerability, and yet when we build a community of safety and trust, we can discover that beyond the fear, there lives a garden of joy that blossoms as we connect with others.
What would it look like to intentionally build communities of trust, where people are beheld and loved, where people can enter and be seen—not for what they’ve done or haven’t done, but as fellow beloved jewels of life?
I believe that the core of this is allowing ourselves time to slow down and be seen and held by Jesus. His love is the source of life. And it doesn’t really help to just think about that as an idea.
Each morning as I sit here in my living room chair by the window, I imagine myself sitting on the wooden, wind-weathered bench on the porch of Lodge 2 at Holden Village—a sacred place for me. Jesus is sitting to my left. I turn to him. We smile. He says to me, “David…David…David… You are my son whom I do so love. I am so pleased with you and that you are on the earth.”
This experience is the seed, the core, the center of my ability to see others. We cannot hold for others what we are not embodying ourselves. When we slow down and truly behold and connect with each other, we build communities of trust. And the Kingdom of God comes near.
We cannot hold for others what we are not embodying ourselves.
Today, when you are with someone you deeply care about and feel safe with, really behold them. Truly cherish them. And see what happens.
Photo by Gregory Woodman.
“In the face of Chattanooga’s painful racial history and the Southside’s needs, we decided our mission would be one of reconciliation.”