There’s an older woman sitting across from me, one table over. I see part of her face over the shoulder of the man with her. When she puts her hand over her lips, wiping away a bagel crumb or a drip of coffee, she looks like my mother-in-law. But she isn’t. It’s an illusion.
The illusion disappears when her hand drops from her face. She is herself again (whoever she is). But she just rested her chin in her palm again, and she becomes the fake mother-in-law: the hair curled and styled the same, the eyes peering out from glasses, the forehead wrinkling in a particular pattern.
It reminds me of those two-in-one sketches that fill coffee table books in the optometrist’s waiting room. Is this an old woman in a scarf or a young lady in a hat? Is this a candlestick or two faces?One eyeblink, a one degree change in perspective shifts the entire picture. A hand over the lips, a hand away from the mouth, and the entire face is different.
Years ago, while our old church was splitting, two people in our small group argued over a particular phrase: good Christian. One man described a group of people as “good Christians.” The other man retorted,
“I don’t know what you mean by ‘good Christian.’”
There were many factors in why this conversation went badly. Cultural backgrounds, emotional hurts, and language barriers all played a role in the miscommunication. But the big difference was this: one man was thinking theologically and the other man was thinking differently.
I saw where both were coming from. Theology guy was hearing “good Christian” and was thinking of Romans, where Paul declares that no one is good. He might also have been considering the passages that make it clear there’s no hierarchy of Christians.
Practical guy was saying “good Christian” and thinking in real-world terms, where we routinely call certain people good and others bad. (Would you rather get in a car with Ted Bundy or Billy Graham? Wouldn’t we say that one man is a “bad guy” and the other a “good guy”?) Or we say that certain people are “good Christians” because it’s easy to see their faith in their personal lives and it looks winsome and appealing.
If I hadn’t been in such a state of lethargy from my depression, I might’ve banged their heads together and hollered. (If only I’d been manic. . . .) But even in my depressive fog, I knew that the men were talking past each other. Both believed they were hearing the other person. In reality, they heard what they thought the other said. Two words, heard from different perspectives: a landmine of potential arguments.
Is it a candlestick or two faces? Is it my mother-in-law or her impostor? Is a person good or not?
It depends on perspective.
Back in high school, I read The Scarlet Pimpernel. Marguerite, a French exile during the Revolution, despises her husband, the lackadaisical dandy Sir Percy Blakeney. She ridicules him, treats him coldly, and can’t understand his actions when he learns that her brother is in great danger. She has also been blackmailed into helping a French spy find the mysterious and brave Scarlet Pimpernel, who orchestrates the escapes of the threatened French nobility.
Then one day, she walks into his study and finds a ring. Not just any ring, but a ring with a star-shaped flower on it. The signet ring of the Scarlet Pimpernel. In a flash, she realizes the truth: her husband is the Pimpernel, and she has placed him in danger.
A one degree shift. Everything changes for Marguerite. Now she sees her husband, not the illusion of her husband.
I remember that small group argument and how much the disagreement hinged on perspective. Would it have taken a one degree shift in perspective to change the entire thing? It might’ve taken more, in this case; there were significant barriers in communication.
But I also think of Marguerite picking up the Pimpernel’s signet ring. At that point, she doesn’t know everything, but she knows the most important thing: she has misinterpreted everything about her husband. How much difference would it have made for the two men to know that they were miscommunicating and using the same words in different ways?
Maybe it would’ve made a world of difference.
Maybe it wouldn’t have mattered at all.
I’ll never have a chance to know.