Watching without Seeing: A Pathological Cultural Disorder?

Most of us have had the experience of feeling stopped, stuck, or paralyzed in our lives, unable to progress, to access creativity, meet deadlines, sometimes even to manage basic obligations. Being immobilized is hardly pleasant, but it is absolutely a hallmark of impending change, and it behooves us to understand both the problem and the power of paralysis.

Years ago, I did some meaningful research into the myth of Medusa, the legendary Gorgon who turned people to stone when they looked at her. What I ultimately realized is that the irony of regarding Medusa is that being turned to stone makes one an object of disregard. Disregard may be defined as a turning away from something one doesn’t want to see; an avoiding or a dismissal. It implies a choice, conscious or not, to devalue, deny, or relegate something to total insignificance. In western civilization we have trained ourselves to disregard people, nature, and events as a mechanism to protect ourselves. Being the object of someone’s disregard is often completely disempowering.

In their groundbreaking work, Toward Psychologies of Liberation, Mary Watkins and Helene Shulman (2008) suggest it is impossible to be connected to a world we continually fail to see. This separation or loss of connection manifests in dissociation, the distancing or splitting off of affect, a sort of psychic numbing, and in objectification, establishing ourselves at the top of a hierarchical structure where we become the doers and all else around us, the objects of our manipulations and our doing. Both dissociation and objectification serve to effectively turn us to stone, either by self-inflicted paralysis or by the immobilizing of others

Dissociating enables us to feel safe by becoming numb. It cuts off emotion so we can tolerate certain behaviors, acts, or mandates without being overly affected, and it makes us capable of inflicting judgment or pain without suffering evident consequences. Watkins and Shulman reiterate that this kind of psychological disenfranchisement extorts a heavy toll as passive bystandingwatching without seeing, and observing without engagement, is a sort of self-mutilation, an amputation of our own sense of sight, a “severing of the self” (p. 66). This tendency has been called percepticide by trauma scholar Diana Taylor (in Shulman-Lorenz & Watkins, 2002), an act of self-blinding because to see andacknowledge the atrocities that exist would endanger ourselves.

Archetypal psychologist James Hillman (Re-Visioning Psychology) suggests, “The eye and wound are the same” (1975, p. 107): in other words, the thing we refuse to see and the denial of that thing by the eye that does not see are both violent acts which result in trauma to the psyche–ours and others. In other words, sometimes, by watching without seeing we perpetuate almost as much trauma as the original wounding does.

Finally, it is almost as if, through dissociation, we turn ourselves to stone in order not to see. Shulman and Watkins suggest that when the practice of percepticide pervades a culture, “watching-without-seeing becomes ‘the most dehumanizing of acts’” (p. 5). I experienced one aspect of this recently when a serious car accident occurred just about 30 feet away from me as one car trying to cross a busy intersection without a traffic light misjudged and plowed into a crossing car. After the horrendous screech and ensuing crash, I took in the scene. Both cars were driven by young women. About 40 or 50 people were standing on sidewalks and nearby parking lots. As I surveyed the scene, not one of them I could see was on a cell phone to call 911. More than that, nobody in the ten minutes from the time the accident occurred to when first responders arrived, approached either of the drivers (both luckily coherent, though clearly stunned and shocked) to ask if they were OK, to let them know 911 had been called, or to put an arm around them and comfort them in the throes of their terrible ordeal. Instead, many of us (myself included) stood around wondering about the incident and probably feeling glad it wasn’t any us.

This incident left me deeply disturbed, wondering about our culture and our hesitation to connect with one another even in times of tragedy. I think perhaps recent tragic events like the Sandy Hook CT school shooting along with other mass shootings among others are not only a symptom of something huge in our cultural unconscious overflowing the established banks but indeed are a turningpoint for all of us, a wakeup call to truly begin to connect and engage instead of just turning away from our televisions with a murmur of regret and then going back to our everyday lives. Are we increasingly relating to the often horrible and shocking events we “witness” in life as spectators, watching without seeing because it offers a kind of entertainment or shock value because we are unable to authentically feel the emotional impact and the implications of what it might mean?

I speak for myself when I suggest that in modern times, it seems many of us have become Medusas of myth; as surely as she turned mortals to stone, we have adopted a method that is equally dehumanizing, of not looking at all, or of looking without really seeing, resulting in a culture of unengaged, immobilized bystanders, going about our lives incapable of witnessing or deeply responding to a call. Not only that, but when we do “look,” our tendency is to turn other people and things to stone because of our increasing and fortified capacity to objectify–to gain the upper hand by making others into objects of lesser value so that we can feel empowered.

It is my hope that each of us will begin to remember our long history of connectedness; to understand that if we were to make eye contact, say hello, reach out to a stranger, or just stop hiding out or holding back when so much is being asked of us to step forward and be part of what’s going on in the world–perhaps there will be less wounding and more healing. If you need help in this process, please be sure to reach out to one of the depth oriented therapists or service providers listed here. You don’t have to do it alone: no one should, and in fact, it contributes to the challenge. Let’s remember together…