Open Your Eyes Essay

Yep, he’s at it again.

Pope Francis that is. That man has a way of getting above the noise and it’s not just because he’s the Pope. Pope Benedict rarely got my attention, but this guy… well, he’s different.

This week, Pope Francis spoke up about climate change. He directed his message at all of us and sounded an alarm that if we don’t review the choices we’re making about Mother Earth, then there will be hell to pay.

Okay, he didn’t actually say “hell,” but that was the gist. He warned that “history will judge us for our decisions” and that we “will go down” if humans fail to curb climate change. But, it was this line from his speech that really stopped me in my tracks: “When you don’t want to see … you don’t see.”

Bam. Think about that.

What do you not want to see right now? Is there something in your relationship you refuse to acknowledge? Is there something in our political world that you refuse to see? Is there something inside you that is holding you back? Are you scared or angry about something that is gnawing at you, yet you refuse to believe it?

Think about it.

All of us, at different times in our lives, have been blind to something around us or within us. I know I have been. I’ve been blind to things I should have seen and didn’t.

But today, I find myself more attuned and more aware. I see things today that I might not have seen in the past—mainly because I’ve worked to become more self-aware. I’ve worked at getting out of my head and into my heart.

When you open your heart—like, really open it—then your eyes will magically follow, and you will begin to see your whole wide world in a whole new way.

When you’re out of your head and in your heart, you can’t deny stuff. You can’t not feel. You can’t not see. Sure, when you open your heart, you might feel some painful stuff, but you can also feel moved. You can also feel inspired.

The images and stories I’ve seen and heard this week—stories of generosity, compassion and service—have been inspiring. I’ve seen stories of human triumph and perseverance. I’ve seen, heard and listened to individuals who have stepped forward to make our world better for all of us.

Now, I know this has also been a devastating week for many of our fellow citizens. That goes for those affected by the hurricanes, as well those living through the wildfires in the west. I can’t imagine being displaced from my home and losing everything. I see what people are going through and—to the best of my ability—I feel it, and I feel for them. I’ve been so shaken this week by the stories of the elderly who were left stranded after Hurricane Irma, as well as the news that eight residents of one nursing home died in the aftermath. This just exposes how much this population needs our love and attention. It’s a reminder to society that we have to prioritize their care, particularly in times of need.

Throughout all of this, I must say that I have been moved by all of the stories of people who are stepping up to help. Who are putting their own needs aside and rising to the occasion to help their fellow neighbors. The people I spoke to Tuesday night as I worked the phones for the telethon “Hand-in-Hand: A Benefit for Hurricane Relief” were a touching reminder that love is all around us and people are eager to help. In fact, I fielded so many calls from Canadians who wanted to give, even though this didn’t happen in their country. It’s amazing, and I’m grateful to them for their generosity. (The telethon raised more than $44 million and counting. You can still give here.)

Maybe those who are stepping up to help are doing so because they know that we’re all one step away from being in our neighbor’s shoes. Or at least, I hope that’s the case. My friend Jan, who lives with her husband and four small children in Florida, told me how humbling it was to be in the midst of the hurricane and how it changed the way she sees just about everything. Like Jan, I see how fragile life can be. How meaningless all of our “stuff” is. How important it is to open our eyes to our fellow neighbors, to our individual choices, and to our common home.

Thank you, Pope Francis, for the poke, the slap, and the nudge. If you’re still one of those people who doesn’t want to see… get out of your head and into your heart. You will be amazed at what you might see.

P.S. Something all Architects of Change seem to have in common is that they see things that others don’t: a problem, a solution, or a new way of doing things. Then, they devote their lives to getting the rest of us to open our eyes and embrace, or at least acknowledge, their vision. It’s amazing what can happen when we’re willing to open our hearts and our minds to see things differently. How might you be doing that in your own life? I encourage you to tell me.

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In her essay “Seeing,” Annie Dillard tells an anecdote of newly sighted patients, blind from birth, who have had cataract operations that restored their sight.

Contrary to what you may expect — that the experience of finally seeing after many years of blindness will be a beautiful and almost ecstatic one — some of these patients find the “tremendous size of the world” oppressing.

It may take weeks, months, and even years to adjust to the dramatic increase in stimuli; some even choose to “lose” or not make use of their newly acquired sense.

For them, seeing is traumatic: What they see doesn’t match what they had imagined.

While few of us will ever experience such a dramatic change in sense perception in our lives, many of us may encounter moments when, in William Wordsworth’s words, the “world is too much with us.”

Wordsworth’s sonnet is a work of art, but it is also an admonishment and perhaps a request for us to use our senses more fully and for very different purposes.

He follows the opening words with others that are equally relevant and powerful: “The world is too much with us; late and soon, / Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers; / Little we see in Nature that is ours; / We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!”

Wordsworth suggests that when we focus too much on “getting and spending,” we lose both our ability to “see,” as well as our emotional and perhaps spiritual connection to others and to the world around us.

In the past two weeks, two new staff members of the Center for Student Engagement and Community Partnerships both AmeriCorps VISTA volunteers — have written columns for the Collegiate Times.

In those columns, Alexia Edwards and Tara Milligan outlined some of the work they are doing in the New River Valley and presented opportunities for people to get involved, and to put aside “getting and spending” and connect with others through volunteerism.

My hope is that many of you who read this paper will take a moment to pause and realize how easy it can be to become blind or to lose sight of the world around you, a world that is far larger and often more complicated and oppressive than the cocoon that you can build while living on the Virginia Tech campus or even in Blacksburg.

If there is any doubt, simply take a ride to Pulaski, Martinsville or Danville to visit towns in Virginia where the economic downturn has left many people out of work and resulted in true hardship for families.

Re-read last week’s essay by Tara about families facing impossible choices concerning how to use their limited funds.

You do not have to travel to Haiti or to the Sudan to find poverty or hardship. You can find it right here.

Even in Blacksburg there are hundreds of homeless children, a fact that many may find nearly impossible to believe.

But, as New River Family Shelter Director Carol Johnson says,

“Our homeless population looks different. It’s not as visible because you don’t see a lot of people living on the street.”

One of our missions at CSECP is to work in partnership with organizations such as the YMCA at VT, NRV Cares, New River Community Action, Second Harvest, the Christiansburg Institute, and New River Family Shelter to “see” the needs in our community that are not easily visible and then work to address those needs.

Sometimes I’ve found that seeing isn’t easy; our eyes are not accustomed to notice the signs of rural poverty or homelessness.

But focusing on obligations and acting (in word or deed) often require time or assistance.

We need a guide, which is an important role that the nonprofit organizations play.

But in my experience, with just a bit of guidance, the veils over our eyes lift quickly, and we start to focus on obligations to fellow human beings and to society.

Dillard explains in her essay that at first, most of the “newly sighted” do not perceive shadows and spatial relationships, only patches of color.

And with the sight of colors and shapes also comes the requirement to learn a new vocabulary so they can articulate what they see in terms that are understandable to the sighted.

In essence, they not only need to learn to see, they also need to learn to verbalize what they see.

Such a process takes time, and for those patients who are not overwhelmed, the world can be a truly beautiful place, which when seen and described by them might “teach us how dull is our own vision.”

At CSECP, we encourage you to enter new environments and gaze upon everything as someone newly sighted, so that you may see, with clarity, what is possible.

With possibility comes hope and growth.

As Alexander Pope, a 17th century English poet, once said: “This kind, this due degree / Of blindness, weakness. Heav’n bestows on thee. / Submit—In this, or any other sphere.”

If you recognize your own “blindness, weakness” and submit to it through the “operation” of higher education, you may become “newly sighted.”

My hope is that you will not refuse your new vision, but instead be astonished by what you see, and be both willing to learn a new vocabulary so that you can share what you see with others.

In so doing, you would be acting in concert with a key principle of our university expressed through “Ut Prosim — That I may serve.”

Our motto is much more than words; it is an expression of commitment, an invitation to a way of being, an opportunity to acknowledge that service is a privilege, a gift we receive, not give to others.

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