What do you see?

Some years ago, I was ambling along a dark and deserted East Village street in New York at about 1:00am on a summer evening when two young guys came toward me, walking at a fast pace from the opposite direction. They were talking and appeared to be taking no notice of me, when just as we were passing, one of them suddenly pushed me against a wall, and lightly pressed a knife across my throat. His eyes were close to mine, pinpoints, unreadable. He shouted at me, ‘What do you see, muthafucka!” No time for thought, but the answer must have been somewhere deep inside of me. Terrified, I answered softly but without hesitation, “I see a human being.” For just a moment, we looked at each other, and then he said, “Better watch your step, muthafucka,” and went off with his friend who had stood to the side during the entire incident.

I continued home, shaken and grateful to be still alive. However, in the next few days I found myself mulling over his question and his warning.

“What do you see,- – – – – – – – – -?”  Why do we need life threatening crises to give us the courage to abandon the comfort zones of our self important daily routines and make us look again at our faulty perceptions and negative assumptions we make about ourselves and others?  Why do we need the death of a loved one, catastrophic reminders of our own mortality, day to day failure in communicating with our friends, wives and children, business associates and strangers in order to change the nature of our relationships?

In order to learn and grow, we need to  revisit repeatedly the ladder of inference :  the so-called facts, our faulty perceptions of the facts, assumptions based on those perceptions and finally, our tightly held beliefs about ourselves and others based on those assumptions? We need to be aware of our feelings and challenge the the validity of the assumptions behind those feelings.

My mind keeps returning to that evening’s encounter. The question “What do you see and hear” now occupies more of my professional practice than any assumptions about knowing the right answers. Do I understand my own actions; and how much of an effort have I made to understand yours?  The quality of our communication with each other defines our relationships, our lives, even if we are total strangers, even if we fail to connect as we hoped.


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