Wisdom in Common Things

A typical zoo, lots of kids, and two bears. Or is it something more?

Perspective is everything.

We are in Berlin. The time is the early 1930s.

The question becomes, who is behind bars and who is on the outside looking in? The past gives us one answer. The photographer’s subject appears to be German Jews or any people imprisoned within a totalitarian state.

Yet the image provokes us to reflect upon our “point of view.” Do we accept our way of perceiving the world as the only valid one? Do we think twice, look again, reconsider our history, our actions, and the people around us?

The process of psychotherapy demands this on a personal level. Peaceful protesters in the streets also challenge us to recognize conditions we don’t wish to confront. The psychologist and the demonstrator carry the same message. As Rilke wrote, “You must change yourself.”

Counseling should cause the client to alter his frame of reference, clean the mirror he holds to his face, reevaluate whether his approach to life is working. If he does not, he remains like those children in the menagerie, on the wrong side of a high fence. But unlike them, he is incarcerated in a cage of his own making.

Try this photograph:

There’s a bit of a story here. I was on a morning walk. If you inspect the photo you will notice a quarter: a 25 cent piece. I bent to pick it up.

The hard object could not be separated from the walkway’s grip. What caused its fondness for the ground?? I suspect the coin dropped before the cement dried. The metal stuck.

Was it an accident or the result of someone’s plan? With what intention?

Several possibilities come to my mind:

  • to make a permanent mark lasting as long as the sidewalk. A kind of immortality.
  • As an experiment. Imagine the experimenter stationing himself nearby and tabulating how often people awaken to the object and hesitate over it. Or recording how many passersby attempt to dislodge the quarter and for how long.
  • Perhaps a prankster wished to frustrate anyone wishing to put it in his pocket.
  • Did the “two bits” offer philosophical instruction on the question, “how important is money, and what are you willing to do to get some? Break the pavement? Break the law? Where does the dollar fit in your system of values? Will you get on your knees in worship before its streetside alter?”

Here is one last picture to contemplate:

We all carry secrets. Perhaps the boy is sharing one and cautioning nondisclosure. The observer is left to consider how genuine and open we are. Anton Chekhov composed this about a man with a hidden life:

He began to judge others by himself, no longer believing what he saw, and always assuming that the real, the only interesting life of every individual goes on as (if) under cover of night, secretly. Every individual existence revolves around mystery, and perhaps that is the chief reason that all cultivated individuals insist so strongly on the respect due to personal secrets.

One wonders. For some of our friends, even those closest, is the most essential element of their life unknown to us? Might we also be unrevealed to them? If so, what is the cost of our concealed state?

They and we connect the observable dots of words and behavior, hoping we know the whole. Do we harbor shameful moments, episodes of cowardice, a haunted gender complexity? Is a sequestered, buried heart still bleeding, a boxed-up desire locked away, an ancient loss lurking?

Inertia resides in an undisclosed soul, just as stubborn in its stuckness as the 25 cents on my local sidewalk.

Will someone tell the person who left the melded money that there are those who would cherish the other side of the coin? Like the boy’s inner life, we only see half.

Shall I talk to the immovable, rounded copper the next time I pass its way? I’ll read him the Rilke poem about change. You’d think changing would come easily to a piece of change.

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The Rilke quotation is the last line from his poem, Archaic Torso of Apollo. The Chekhov quotation comes from his short story, The Lady With the Dog. The first photo is Roman Vishniac’s People Behind Bars.