6: Strange views

French press

A tale of two yams highlighted how our assumptions, memories, and what we think we know can paper over the living reality of what’s right in front us, causing us to misunderstand people, things, and situations and, significantly, to miss often obvious opportunities. However, we can rediscover these lost bits of reality by setting aside our preconceived notions and seeing the world afresh. An effective way of doing this is by looking at things from “strange views”.

Familiarity breeds blindness

As we become more familiar with things, people, or ideas, we tend to increasingly take them for granted. What was here yesterday will be here tomorrow, unchanged, or so we assume, and so it’s safe to forget about it. How often do you think about the ground beneath your feet or the water that you drink? Not much, I’d wager.

You’d think that we’d be aware of things so significant in our daily lives - try imagining getting through your day without the ground or water - but, in fact, the opposite is usually the case. What we rely on most frequently, what we’re most familiar with - in short, what works for us - is very nearly invisible most of the time.

To demonstrate this, let’s do an experiment. Grab a pen or pencil and something to write on. Now - bear with me - write all the odd numbers from 1 to 20. When you’re done, continue to the next paragraph.

What did you notice while you were writing? More to the point, what didn’t you notice? I suspect your answer to the first question is something along the lines of “numbers” or “counting”. On the other hand, the second question is rather peculiar and has many possible answers. Out of the following, just about all of you didn’t notice at least one of the following: the pen, the paper, the chair you may be sitting on, or the desk or table you may be writing on.

Now, suppose your pen exploded, your pencil tip snapped, your chair broke, or your paper ripped. In any of these cases you probably would’ve noticed your failing tool and not so much the numbers. These observations illustrate a significant aspect of our everyday way of interacting with the world, namely, that unexpected and frustrating things bring us to awareness, whereas familiar and smoothly running things pass by unnoticed. [1]

These facts may seem trivial, but they can be put to use for developing new perspectives on things, people, and problems. Where familiarity may blind us to what is, the unexpected, strange, and, yes, frustrating can bring us into a closer relationship with the world. How can we apply these insights to further our work and relationships?

French press, fresh eyes

At this point, you may suspect we’re really talking about the old cliché of “looking at things from a different angle” - and you’d be right, sort of. For its merits, this saying is vague and doesn’t express the key quality to look for when selecting a new angle from which to view things. This quality is strangeness.

A “different” angle that is nonetheless familiar or easy to imagine probably won’t shake us out of the rut we’re in. Rather, a strange or unexpected angle has the potential to jostle us out of our stuckness and into a new perspective in virtue of its unfamiliarity. In the same way the exploded pen or snapping pencil tip forces an adjustment to a new situation, looking at things from a strange view forces us to reinterpret what we see, bringing us to a new understanding of a familiar thing.

For instance, to gain a better visual understanding of my French press, I turned it upside down and to an asymmetrical angle before setting to draw it. Doing this broke my habitual interpretation of it principally as a French press and forced me to see it as lines and tones, reflections and textures.

At the same time, seeing the thing upside down carried with it the sensation of being glad it was empty, bringing its usual function to the front of my awareness in a way simply using it to make coffee does not. In the latter case, I’m focused more on preparing a cup of coffee than on the “containerness” of the French press.

In short, looking at the French press from a strange view brought me to a new understanding of it both as a visual object and as a tool, facilitating my drawing work. Similarly, rearranging other things or putting people in unexpected situations can reveal things about them that can help solve difficult problems or foster human connections. [2]

Get weird

Much is made of being “normal” and seeing things the “right way”, but this isn’t all it’s cracked up to be when you’re trying to overcome novel challenges or create something new. For these things, it helps to get a little weird and see things from a strange view from time to time, whether that’s upending your French press, reading a book backwards, or taking the wrong way to work. When you need a fresh perspective, consider the words of the ever insightful Mr. Dodson:

“Strangeness forces us to see things intensely and with fresh eyes.” [3]

Notes

[1] A full philosophical exploration of this phenomenon can be found in Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time, section 15.

[2] Consider so-called “ice breaker” games - what are they but a manner of getting people to reveal something genuine of themselves by putting them in surprising situations?

[3] Dodson, Bert. Keys to Drawing. Cincinnati: North Light Books, 1990.