In the movie, “The Upside,” Bryan Cranston’s character, Phillip, is a wealthy entrepreneur confined to a wheelchair due to a hang-gliding accident. Phillip hires Dell, played by Kevin Hart, to be his personal caregiver. Since Dell is black, unemployed and a parolee, their two worlds inevitably clash. Amidst some very humorous and awkward moments, we observe how each man becomes invisible to a culture that “otherizes” them based on paraplegia (Phillip) and race (Dell).
In one scene, Dell is accompanying his boss through the parking garage when they encounter Carter, Phillip’s rather snooty neighbor. Carter has no trouble “seeing” Phillip, his financial and social equal, but seems to look right through Dell, the dark-skinned assistant standing right there. All Carter’s questions and comments about “the help” are directed to Phillip. All the while, Dell is pointedly challenging Carter to be seen, as if to say, “I’m standing right here. I can hear you. Talk to me.”
“Without realizing it, we turn human beings into commodities, objects of our goodwill.”
Later the tables are turned when the two travel from the affluent confines of Phillip’s world to Dell’s gritty, working-class neighborhood. At a busy hotdog stand, the man behind the counter takes Dell’s order and then makes the mistake that many of us have made. He assumes that because Phillip is in a wheelchair, he must also be deaf and mute. He asks Dell what his friend wants to eat, as if Phillip, sitting right in front of him, is a hologram rather than a person. How many of us have taken an older adult to the doctor, only to have the medical staff talk to us rather than to the patient? Invisible.
One of the Bible’s clear messages is that God is not only an eternal being, but also a moral one. That morality is on full display early in the Exodus story, when the Israelites, under the cruel weight of slavery, cry out to God. In response, “God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them” (Exodus 2:25, NRSV, emphasis added). In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus of Nazareth seems to have his Father’s eyes, because the writer records that when Jesus “saw the crowds, he had compassion for them…” (9:36, NRSV, emphasis added).
Every day people enter and exit my life. But do I see them? The question haunts me. How do I break the habit of rendering others invisible? I offer four words of caution to myself and to you:
1. Beware of familiarity. Whether family member, coworker, friend or neighbor, did I fail to see someone today, simply because they are always nearby? Perhaps because I always see them, I never see them.
2. Beware of easy rationalizations which assist us in un-seeing others. Sometimes, it is just not convenient to care. We want to erase what we see so we don’t have to deal with it. Never fear; convenient ideologies exist to aid us. In the Exodus account, Pharaoh treats the Hebrew slaves as production units instead of human beings by simply declaring they are lazy and deserve his harsh treatment. Generalizations and assumptions regarding race, class, sexuality, religion, age and disability all provide an escape from the hard work of seeing.
3. Beware of distractions. Our world seems aflame with crises, scandals and cruel injustice. Compassion fatigue sets in, and we find it impossible to remain incensed about the same situation for longer than 48 hours. We fail to “see” human suffering because we’re always moving on to the latest crisis or scandal. Recently there was a story in our local newspaper about congressional hearings and another about the merits of various federal budget priorities. These articles seemed to crowd out a third story about the thousands of children who are still being detained, many separated from parents who were seeking asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border. Many of these children have been there a long time. But we stopped seeing them around the time of last fall’s elections . . . and then the government shutdown . . . and then the Alabama tornadoes . . . and then the Ethiopian airplane crash
4. Beware of snobbish benevolence. Read carefully Jesus’ desert temptations (Matthew 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-13). In each test, Jesus was tempted to do something wonderful but to do it without ever seeing people. Mission projects often fail because we export our plans and agendas, never really seeing others as partners and advisors. Without realizing it, we turn human beings into commodities, objects of our goodwill. In the work of racial reconciliation, minorities often despair when well-meaning whites arrive on the scene with prepackaged answers instead of humbly listening and learning. We see the noble cause. But do we see people?
Lent is the season for paying attention. Compassion is the work of seeing, of making invisible people visible.