Blind to what’s obvious

How do we fail to see something that’s completely obvious? Later we’ll say ‘It was staring me in the face. How could I have missed that?’ But we did.

Motorcyclists have died when a car driver pulled out in front of them at a road junction. Afterwards the driver says ‘I just never saw him’. But the rider was there, plainly there.

Most of us miss errors in our writing. After I’ve written this blog, I’ll re-read it two or three times, correcting mistakes or improving sentences. Then I’ll print it out and my wife, Alison, will proof read it for errors and unclear meaning. After that I’ll go through the paper copy line by line, and I’ll find even more mistakes. Finally, all changes made, I’ll read through it one last time. And always – always! – I’ll still find another error. How did I not see that earlier?

In the first example the driver was blind to what he didn’t expect to see – a motorcycle. It was obvious, but he was looking for larger vehicles, not motorbikes. In the second example my eyes see wrongly spelled words on the page but assume they’re correct.

Blindness to what’s obvious is an odd phenomenon. But also a common one.

It’s a kind of blindness which can affect our view of big and small issues.

We’re blind when we don’t want to see what’s there    I’m writing a year and a half after Covid-19 began affecting everyone’s lives significantly. The number of infections and deaths runs into many millions, and most countries have had repeated levels of lockdown. My friend Richard said to me, ‘I’m fed up with lockdowns. I can’t accept another one’. A little impatiently I asked him what that meant – that instead of lockdown he was accepting he might get seriously ill or that he might make others seriously ill? He’s still my friend, but Richard didn’t like my questions. He didn’t want to see the hard reality of a virus we hadn’t overcome and may never wholly overcome.

I met similar defiance on another subject from Paul. He’s so utterly opposed to ideas of global warming or climate change he evangelises denial. He knows the vast majority of scientists argue differently, but he doesn’t believe them. Paul is not a scientist. He’s simply someone who doesn’t want to change his consumerist lifestyle, so prefers not to see truth in the scientists’ research conclusions.

I’ve seen much the same blindness in those who look down on black people as somehow inferior. And in men who can’t see why women would want the opportunities and positions of leadership and influence that they have.

These are not stupid people. But they deny overwhelming scientific or moral evidence and argument. They’re blind to what they don’t want to see.

We’re blind when we don’t recognise what’s there    That’s why the car driver says ‘I never saw the motorcycle’. Because he was looking only for bigger vehicles like cars and buses, he didn’t recognise what was right before him.

The same problem occurs with relationships. I can’t be the only person who’s tried to help a couple save their marriage but privately thought: ‘This couple should never have got married in the first place’. They’re struggling because they were always fundamentally unsuited. Perhaps others saw there would be problems, but the couple didn’t. And now the relationship is in trouble.

There’s an old saying ‘Love is blind’. It can be, but it never should be. People excuse or bypass problems they should recognise as serious. I’ve jotted down the kinds of statements people make, and added my own comments after each.

‘The problems will go away once we’re married.’ [That’s naïve. A wedding service doesn’t magically make deep-rooted problems vanish.]

‘This may be the only chance I’ll ever have to be married. I’m sure it’ll all work out.’ [False optimism can’t justify getting married. Marriage is great, but only between the right people.]

‘I’ll be able to change him once we’re married.’ [There are two problems here: a) it isn’t true; b) while she’s thinking she’ll change him, he may be thinking he’ll change her. Collision ahead.]

‘I really want to have children; nothing else matters.’ [I knew someone who married exactly on that basis. The parents and their children were miserable and damaged.]

‘Everyone thinks we’re a great match; we’ll be fine.’ [Everyone may be saying you’re a great match. But that may be no more than politeness or fear of sounding negative. In any case, they don’t know the inner reality of your relationship.]

‘Perhaps real love will come later.’ [There are marriages where that happens, sometimes in cultures with arranged marriages. But gambling on ‘perhaps’ is a bad bet.]

‘It doesn’t matter that we have different values and goals. All that counts is that we love each other.’ [John Lennon wrote the song ‘All you need is love’ while fascinated by the power of slogans. It became a hit, but that doesn’t prove the slogan is true. Where a couple’s values and goals pull in different directions, love will be under great strain.]

What these small scenarios have in common is a blindness to how things really are. Perhaps all their friends are getting married, so surely they should too. And they convince themselves that marriage will be wonderful while failing to see serious problems which will undermine a wonderful life together.

We’re blind when we don’t care what’s there     Some eat so much they’re seriously obese, ignore their doctor’s warnings, and take years off their life expectancy. Others drink to excess, damaging their liver and family life too. Or they drink and drive, risking death for them and others. Or (going back a few decades) they manufacture cigarettes and deny there’s any proof that smoking harms health. Or career climbers work 18 hours a day, ignoring signs of ulcers or heart irregularities. Or overbearing bosses create a toxic work environment with bullying and threatening behaviour. Or the management of a chemical plant pumps waste into waterways, contaminating drinking water. Or planners and builders pack so many homes into small areas, there’s nowhere for recreation, and cars congest streets which diminishes air quality to levels that damage health. And so on.

Perhaps all of us have our ‘blind spots’ – areas of life we don’t examine much in case we find something that should change but we don’t want to change. It happens at personal levels (such as eating, drinking, driving), management levels (wellbeing of staff or customers), planning and regulatory levels (quality of life issues). We don’t care enough to look closely at what’s happening with ourselves or the lives of others.

Some things are complicated. Losing weight or stopping an addiction isn’t simple for anyone. And planning in an overcrowded city is compromised by the need to house people. But other things aren’t complicated, such as the morality of promoting a lethal product or disposing carcinogenic chemicals recklessly.

At root, there’s a kind of blindness. If we don’t care enough to look, we don’t see the consequences of our actions. But later we regret not putting things right. One man said: ‘I didn’t value my health until I didn’t have it any more’. Exactly. He had been blind to how valuable his health was.

Of course, the challenge with any of these forms of ‘blindness’ is that we don’t realise we’re blind. We think we see the world perfectly clearly.

Two things can change that.

The first is that something shatters our delusion. It could be dramatic like driving straight into the path of a motorcyclist, or a marriage ends, or health breaks down. Or more gentle such as realising we’re out of synch with the views of most people.

The second way to change is by choice. The choice is determining to be open to new ideas or perspectives. Willing to rethink big issues. Willing to view people differently. Willing to change lifestyle. Willing to review the quality of relationships. And so on. It’s taking the risk of seeing truths differently from before. That’s not easy. You might need a real friend to help you, because it may involve accepting being wrong in the past, and rethinking how to live for the future.

But it’s worth it. It could end dangerous blindness in your life.


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