I didn’t see you when you walked past
I only saw
your clothes, which signify something to me
your outward appearance, which is alien to me
your body language
I didn’t see you.
Perhaps you were wearing some kind of religious gear that is alien to me, or maybe some kind of uniform which tells me what your job is. Perhaps you were dressed in a way that seemed to me too flashy, too tarty, too frumpy, too smart, too scruffy – there are so many things that can distract us from seeing the other person as an individual, things that draw our attention and cause us to pigeonhole a fellow human being, stick a label on them and fail to notice their humanness.
I’ve had this post brewing in my mind for a long while, ever since that afternoon when I bumped into a neighbour in one of the lanes we have round here, footpaths that connect some of the streets. There’s a no cycling sign at each entrance, but people constantly ignore it and ride their bicycles through these lanes, even though there isn’t room for a cyclist alongside a pedestrian, and the wiggly bits make it dangerous. I get really annoyed when I see people cycling there, and have to exercise lots of self-control to keep myself from telling them off every time. So I was walking through that lane that afternoon and saw a cyclist. I did not see a fellow human being, I did not look at her face, I was too busy ignoring this annoying person to notice anything at all about her. But suddenly she stopped and said hello in a friendly tone, and it turned out she was that nice neighbour I’ve met where we park our cars in the back, she’s friendly and chatty and she has cats. We had a really nice chat. And afterwards I had this phrase in my mind: I didn’t see you.
I was flying home to Israel the next day with my husband, and we ended our time there with a few days in Jerusalem, in the part called The Old City. I took lots of photos of people on the streets, wanting to show the mix of different cultures there – I recognise that through the lens of my camera I was seeing, and showing, the outward appearance, the different religious gear people wore. I took pictures of religious Jewish men in their black suits and hats, a guy wearing the long black robes of the Greek Orthodox priests, a woman in a grey nun’s habit – I was not connecting with any of these people as individuals, I was only noticing their clothes, and only registering what these clothes signify to me. And walking through the ancient stone-paved streets of the Jewish Quarter one evening, seeing so many synagogues and yeshivas, I suddenly thought: I could so easily walk past my own cousin on the street here and not recognise him, because I’d only see another one of these super-religious dudes in the traditional black gear. That’s what happened last time I met this cousin, back in 1996 at my sister’s flat after her funeral: there were a whole load of people there, and I didn’t have a clue who this guy was until I heard someone else address him by name.
Because this is what happens all the time: we get distracted by outward appearance, and don’t notice the unique individual human being in front of us.
Of course some things in our outward appearance can give some clues about us, it’s just that people tend to take it too far, to generalise too much. From the way I dress these days you can justifiably draw the conclusion that I am someone who doesn’t care about following fashion, for example; but you could also unjustifiably jump to conclusions about me because of what you think people who dress like this are like on the inside – you may have prejudices about frumpy middle-aged women, and you might be surprised to find that I’m creative and imaginative and that yes, I do have a sense of humour and of fun.
Or you might find it surprising that someone with tattoos and a nose stud can be an intelligent, educated and caring individual.
Or that a woman wearing a hijab can be intelligent and fun to get to know.
Or that someone in a suit is not necessarily boring or pompous.
Or that a youngster in a hoodie is not necessarily a gangster.
The list is endless. We do this all the time. I don’t think it’s something we can simply decide to switch off just like that, but we need to become more aware of this tendency, so that we can correct ourselves as we go – we need to listen to ourselves and notice when we’re jumping to unfounded conclusions. And we need to work at sifting out the prejudice-ridden stuff we hear around us. We need to have the courage to speak out when we hear these things, to stand up and say: excuse me, but not all ________s are like that, please don’t tar them all with the same brush. or to dare raise the question: was this person’s ethnicity/religion/sexuality/etc really relevant to what you were saying? (From my experience, people won’t always get what you’re talking about. But I believe it’s still worth trying.)
Let’s try to see people for who they really are.