References to “that vision thing”, now common in political discourse, tend to irritate me. First used during the 1988 campaign by Republican presidential candidate George Bush, the phrase itself is dismissive, reducing a powerful force in human life and history to little more than a marketing ploy. “Without a vision the people perish”, says Proverbs, but the vision of peace and justice held up by Biblical prophets and Wisdom literature has very little to do with the shallow, ephemeral “vision thing” offered by dissembling politicians and politically opportunistic spinmeisters who seem to enjoy working both sides of the national street.
Vision, of course, refers not only to the content of what we see, but to the way in which we see it. Our envisioning of reality tends to be idiosyncratic and malleable, shaped by our sensitivities and preferences as well as our convictions about how the world is, or ought to be.
Imagine, for example, four friends who just have shared a day on the beach. Back at their rented cottage, feet propped on weathered railings and drinks in hand, they watch drifting sand swirl off dunes as the wind stiffens and a neighbor wanders over. Reaching for a beer as he settles onto the top step, he asks, “Well, how was it? Have a good day?”
Rapturous, the outdoor lover in the group bubbles over about the gusts of wind and topple of waves, the cerulean sky and its litter of clouds. For him, the day was perfection, an unforgettable collection of images and sensations. Next to him, a gleeful collector of another sort digs beneath her chair for a basket of shell fragments, bits of driftwood, tumbles of sea glass, and insistently catalogues its contents for her companions: diodora cayenensis, turritella acropora, naticarius canrena.
Bored beyond belief, the woman next to her sits tight-lipped and pinched, as though being forced to pick her way through a particularly disgusting pile of debris. “Well!”, she says, to no one in particular. “I’m glad you think your shells and your pretty waves were worth all that loud music, litter, and rotting seaweed.” Rolling his eyes and giving the visiting neighbor a conspiratorial grin, the last fellow grabs another beer and sits back , as contented as an anthropologist cataloguing rare specimens after returning from the field. He’d never seen such a variety of people on one beach, and was delighted by the visual cacophany of teenagers in skimpy swimsuits, surf fishermen, amorous couples, Hispanic grandmothers with clutches of babies in tow and cowboys washed up on unfamiliar shores.
For each person on the beach house deck, what was seen and remembered was as deeply personal as their dreams. All of us see what “is” through the lens of our own experience and expectations. The phenomenon is so pervasive it’s rarely noted, but it has consequences. People who anticipate goodness can fail to recognize malice. People who expect ugliness look past beauty. Those who live in abject fear refuse the hand of trust. It’s simply the way it is. Patient or paranoid, accepting or cynical, we all have a view of things, and it shapes the direction of our lives.
When a person’s view of things is especially consistent and well defined, or when the uniqueness of their personal vision is communicated clearly and without apology, we sometimes call them “visionary”. An artist with a recognizable style, a writer with a certain voice, a photographer whose eye composes in a unique way, a researcher who sees the structure underlying reality as surely as I see my cat – they are visionaries all. No matter their field, they often are quite insistent about the value of their vision and the importance of maintaining its integrity. One of my favorite quotations from Galileo Galilei has that tone of cranky impatience you find among visionaries who are being urged to jettison their view of reality:
To command the professors of astronomy to confute their own observations is to enjoin an impossibility, for it is to command them to not see what they do see, and not to understand what they do understand, and to find what they do not discover.
Reading his words, I thought immediately of Georgia O’Keefe and her straightforward response to those who found her vibrant, audacious flowers “sentimental”:
I made you take time to look at what I saw and when you took time to really notice my flower you hung all your associations with flowers on my flower and you write about my flower as if I think and see what you think and see — and I don’t.
The visions which compelled Galileo and O’Keefe were quite different, but their commitment to those visions was equally passionate, equally grounded in a firm sense of self. Their feistiness, their refusal to allow others to set parameters for their work, is a recognizable part of the fabled “artistic temperament”. But it is more – it is the fierce protectiveness of mother for child, the determination that newborn ways of seeing will survive the predations of the world.
When imagination is joined to commitment, vision results, and even children can share in the experience. I’ve lost the source, but still remember the story of a small boy, coloring in a book. The scene before him was of mountains, forests and streams. There was wildlife roaming about, including a bear which he had colored green. An adult who wandered through looked at the picture and said, as reasonable adults will, “Your made your bear green. But bears are brown.” “ This bear isn’t,” retorted the child. “He’s green.” Only slightly patronizing, the visiting adult asked, “How do you know?” With the absolute scorn only a child can convey, the boy sighed and said, “I know he’s green because I can SEE him!”
In these first, increasingly contentious days of a new Presidency, it is worth asking: What does Barack Obama see? What is his vision? How does he view the complexities of governing and the future of a country brought to a point of crisis?
Certainly he appears thoughtful and confident, capable of holding opposing views in tension. There are indications he can live without others’ constant affirmation of his worth as a person, and live with disagreement when it comes. He exhibits a certain consonance of word and deed, with his actions as well as his words expressing his most deeply-held beliefs. He seems optimistic and hopeful, certain of the existence of goodness in the world and willing to dare a belief in its triumph, however long that may take.
What will happen to the country during his Presidency is impossible to say. There are forces abroad in the land far beyond the capacity of a single individual to conquer. But life after an unhappy administration is very much like life after a hurricane. As our nation picks through the debris, salvages what can be salvaged and begins to formulate a plan for the future, it’s always best to have someone around who can function well in the midst of chaos. Barack Obama appears to be that man.
Obviously, none of us will agree with each of his decisions. He surely will make mistakes. Possiblities for partisan mischief and obstructive behavior abound and campaign promises (which are, after all, understood differently by everyone who hears them) will be trimmed to the realities of life. But Barack Obama has a vision, and a good bit of tenacity. Eventually, someone is going to insist that bears are brown and attempt to pry the green crayola out of his hands. When that happens, my hope is that he’ll stand his ground. After all, it was his vision and his decisions that gave us the political equivalent of a green bear. The sight of that green bear appeals immensely to people tired of the same old brown. It’s a vision thing.