Do You Hear?
Rev. Douglas Taylor
As we heard in this morning’s reading – we hear what we want to hear. And sometimes, our preconceived notion of what we expect to hear gets in the way of what is actually there to be heard. (How does bias affect how we listen? by Tony Salvador)
Jesus had a pattern of ending his parables with the phrase “you who have ears to hear, listen.” He was essentially saying: you all have ears – use them. Pay attention. But he was also suggesting that there is another way to listen, if you are willing to put in the work. Because sometimes we have obstacles that get in the way of ‘hearing’ and understanding.
Let me pause here at the beginning to acknowledge the ablism in our language. Our vocabulary is saturated with analogical references to our senses as if everyone has full access to their sight and hearing, with the reverse suggestion that a disability indicates intellectual deficiency. Do you see what I am getting at? Do you see it? You hear what I’m saying? Sometimes I can’t stand it. Do you under … stand?
I am not going to spend this whole sermon unpacking our language as if we are terrible people who need to stop talking. Instead, I am going to deconstruct what is behind all this language. I am going to talk about how we take in information about truth and reality, how we make meaning out if it, and what gets in the way.
Let me start with the story of magenta. Actually, to do that, I need to first start with the story of yellow. I trust that you are all familiar with the basic concept of color as a function of the wavelengths of light. When we look at the rainbow or at white light that is refracted through a prism, we see the distinct colors of red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. And there wasn’t a vote about putting them in that order. This wasn’t about an artist centuries back who set convention for the colors to be in that order. No. They are in that order based on physics. Light has a wavelength as it travels; and by the rate of the wavelength we get the different colors. That’s physics.
So, let me shift for a moment to biology. Our eyes receive these photons/waves of light and we have specific types of light and color receptors – rods and cones in our eyes – that then send the signals to our brains so we can see color. We have three types of cones for color vision: red, green, and blue. (It’s actually a lot more complicated than that, but it’s a close enough description for the purpose of our story this morning.)
All the color we see is based on the blending our brains make from the input received through our eyes – through the three color-cones that receive the photons of light entering our eyeballs.
At this point, you’re probably thinking, “Isn’t this supposed to be a sermon? It sounds like a high school biology class!” To which I say, “Bear with me. This is going to be really cool.” At which point you’re probably like, “Okay. This is Douglas, he does like to take us on little stories to make an interesting point. Keep going.” Thanks. I’m going to keep going.
So, we have three kinds of color receptors in our eyes, but we all know about the spread of seven different colors in the rainbow. That’s not even to mention shades of the same color. (My wife keeps telling me a blue shirt and a blue tie don’t go together if they are not the same blue.) So how do we see all the different colors when we only have three kinds of color receptors? The answer is: our brains are amazing at blending sensory information into coherency.
Take yellow, for example. We don’t have a photoreceptor cone in our eyeball for the color yellow. But we still see yellow. Yellow does have a distinct wavelength frequency; but technically, we can’t see it. Our brains receive the wavelength information from our red and green cones and interpret that information as yellow. In fact, most of the colors we see are blends and interpretations. So, yellow is not all that remarkable. (Interesting side note, there are some animals, such as goldfish, who have yellow cone receptors.)
But hold on to your socks while I tell you about magenta. (Here is a pair of very interesting articles on this topic. https://medium.com/swlh/magenta-the-color-that-doesnt-exist-and-whyec40a6348256#:~:text=Magenta%20doesn’t%20exist%20because,it%20substitutes%20a%20new%20thing. And https://arstechnica.com/science/2009/02/yes-virgina-there-is-a-magenta/)
The color magenta does not have a distinct wavelength in the spectrum, but we still see it. You remember how the top of the rainbow is red and bottom is violet? What color do you get when you blend red and violet? Fuchsia, or magenta, or some other name we call that mix of red and violet. Today, let’s just use magenta. On the color wheel – an equal mix of red and violet produces magenta. But color in physics is not a wheel, it is a spectrum with red at one end and violet at the other.
Our photoreceptor cones receive this information with corresponding wavelengths for the different colors. Red’s wavelength is wide, violet’s wavelength is narrow. They don’t meet, they don’t blend. There is no wavelength for the color magenta. Magenta doesn’t exist. And yet, we see magenta. So, magenta does exist. (Ta-da) Science!
Let me now tell you why I took us all on that long geeky science ride. Our brains are amazing. They look for patterns, fill in gaps, and make interpretations. The Bluebottle Butterfly has 15 different kinds of photoreceptors. They don’t need to fill in a lot of gaps. Their brains don’t need to work extra hard at interpretation. Their eyes have 15 different types of photoreceptors; we have 3. Our brains have to work hard to figure out what we are seeing. And our brains are very good at this.
If you zoned out during my little digression into eyeball biology – the short version is this: the world out there is filled with things to sense and perceive. Our eyes take in a certain, limited amount of this information. And then our brains find patterns, fill in the gaps, and produce an amazing interpretation of the world around us.
The part I want to focus on this morning is the way our brains find patterns. We do this in so many ways. It is not just with our eyeballs and color, not just the physical world revealed to us through our senses and through science. We’re also talking about how we understand social and political issues like the economy or systemic oppression. It is about our spirituality and faith. It is about our values and convictions and hope. The world out there is filled with things to experience. We take in a certain, limited amount of this information. And then our brains find patterns, fill in the gaps, and produce an amazing interpretation of the world around us.
Some people say the thing that most makes us human is that we make & use tools or that we are rational or that we love. I can hear an argument that what makes us most human is that we tell stories; we see patterns and discern meaning out of what is happening around us, and create stories about it. We are meaning makers. Even if sometimes we make it up. Like magenta.
We can make meaning out of the thinnest set of information – we see the patterns and reach conclusions. Again, this isn’t just the physics of color. This is about falling in love and reaching for justice. We have experiences, we look for patterns, fill in the gaps, and find meaning. Think about why it is sometimes good and sometimes not good to be so good at seeing patterns that may or may not be real. Like magenta.
I was reading an article by a nutritionist with a passion for how we form habits. Chris Sandel, in his piece “How Our Mind Fills in the Gaps,” (https://seven-health.com/2017/04/how-our-mind-fills-in-the-gaps/), writes this:
“…it makes sense to our brain to make assumptions or connections. These are shortcut ways for us to understand the world and not be overwhelmed by information. Basically, beliefs help us to quickly and easily make sense of the world that we live in.
And if we think about it from an evolutionary perspective, it helps to explain this even more.
Imagine you are an early human living in nature. You’re walking around the forest and hear a rustle in the bushes. From a life or death perspective, it makes sense for us to make the connection that a rustle in the bushes equals a dangerous predator.“
He goes on to talk about how we became so good at committing what are called ‘false positives.’ If you assume the noise is a predator and it is not, that’s a false positive. But you still survive that situation. Right or wrong, you survive if you respond as if the danger is real. If you ignore the pattern, don’t make the connection, fail to respond as if it is dangerous – and it is; then you do not survive. Evolutionarily, our species passed down the lesson to lean into ‘false positives.’ So, as a species through the ages, we look for patterns and respond accordingly.
Sandel says, “This is known as patternicity … the tendency to find meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless data.”
So, what is the fix for this little glitch in our systems? How do we resolve the problem of only hearing what we want to hear? How do we deal with it when our preconceived notion of what we think we heard gets in the way of what is actually there to be heard?
I hope it is no surprise to you that my answer is: listen. It is good to check in with yourself regularly. “Is that real?” What is the evidence? Am I hearing only what I want to hear? Am I really listening?
We see meaning in the patterns, that’s what we do. We find stories of importance in the meaningless and meaningful data. What patterns are you seeing? Is there really a God? Am I falling in love? Did that person just say something racist? Is Antifa really is a socialist plot by the Deep State? Are we on the road to becoming a fascist nation? Why don’t dogs and cats get along? Is magenta even a real color?
Jesus said, you who have ears to hear, listen. In this hyper-polarized political season, what stories are you uncovering? What evidence supports those stories? Is it real? Maybe it is. Last week, I made the point that truth matters. Today I am saying, be skeptical. Am I repeating myself or contradicting myself?
Take the time to stop every now and then to be curious about your beliefs, about your convictions, about the stories you tell yourself about who you are and who some other people are. Be curious about your stories. They may be true. Truth has never suffered by doubt. Truth rises when we let it. And there is always an element of interpretation going on in the mix. Like with magenta.
And if this is overwhelming, if there is just too much coming at you and your three simple photoreceptors – remember you can step back and just focus on one thing at a time. (Like we talked about in the Time for All Ages)
Our faith tradition has always been open to doubt and skepticism. We are a curious people. Stay curious. Strive to stay open to challenges about your preconceived notions, and the patterns you think you are seeing. Our world is made of stories. Let us be mindful of that part of reality as we work to build the Beloved Community.
In a world without end,
may it be so.