When as a high school student I undertook my only serious and lengthy study of psychology that was not narrowly focused on my own life and personality and personal history, one of the schools of psychology that I found to be of greatest interest was the German Gestalt school. Like many other German expressions , Gestalt is not a word that is easily translated into English, but it can at least in general be a focus on the wholeness of something rather than its parts. It is common for people, regardless of field, to try to reduce a whole to some sort of smaller and more easily managed parts, be it key performance indicators or a small group of personal statistics, and to attempt to understand people and institutions via these reductionist measures. This particular school of psychology reminds us that a whole has its own qualities, and that in order to understand something you have to look at its wholeness and not only its parts. This is a salutary reminder that ought to help us in many aspects of life.
One of the more intriguing demonstrations of the Gestalt insight about wholeness is in reversible images. One may see in a given image two possible solutions, though only one of them at a time. Depending on what you view as the foreground and what you view as the background, you can see two faces approaching each other for a kiss or a lampstand. Or you may see the face of an old Russian woman or a young woman with her head turned. If you are skilled at looking at this sort of picture, you can see the picture shift as you shift your perspective on it. The elements of the drawing do not change, but the judgment of what the drawing is varies widely depending on how one chooses to see it. The fact that it is relatively easy for people to construct such images that play with our perspective so dramatically ought to give us a clue that our judgment of the wholeness of others and their lives is similarly subject to how we choose to see the evidence, and that if our perspective is incorrect, we will come to faulty conclusions because we will see one thing when another is meant, and until we change our perspective, everything we see will be forced into an incorrect viewpoint.
This is a problem that is widely recognized in many aspects of human endeavor. The late philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn coined an immensely useful and highly problematic term called paradigm in explaining the way that scientists behave. Although scientists are prone to think of themselves as particularly empirical and rational people, Kuhn was able to demonstrate from history and have his results replicated in a study of contemporary scientific behavior, that scientists work according to worldviews that serve to order what they see, and that scientists are particularly blind when it comes to seeing the validity of their scientific paradigms, and just as irrational as other beings when those worldviews come under attack. The soaring intellect that people can possess appears to be based on the firmness of one’s foundation, and a faulty foundation will inevitably lead to a faulty structure being built on top of it. We are only as wise as our presuppositions, only as accurate as our perspective and worldview, and this ought to force our attention on such matters, as it is useless to attempt to build an elaborate and complicated set of conclusions and judgments if our foundation is flawed. This is as true for our conceptual structures as it is for the physical structures that we build.
Although our judgments of ourselves and others will always be colored by our own biases and perspectives, there are things that we can do in order to improve our judgment that are straightforward and hopefully not too taxing. First, we can maintain a sense of humility about our own capacity for judgement and our tendency towards error, a humility that allows us to admit when we are wrong and avoid heaping insult upon injury when we have reason to believe we have misjudged a situation or a person, to allow us the gracefulness to step back from the precipice. Additionally, we may develop a capacity for leaving things open rather than insisting upon closure, understanding that people and situations can change, and that our understanding of either is seldom likely to be complete, so as to give ourselves the mental room to learn and grow, and not to be rigid in our thinking processes. We may additionally be compassionate and understanding to others, seeing them as beings worthy of consideration and respect, even if we do not fully understand their motives and behaviors. Even where someone has wronged us, a respect and concern for other people can help preserve our own decency and allow for the possibility of repentance and restoration in the future when others come to their senses, if they ever do.
When dealing with other people, we have to remember that they are whole beings. We cannot justly say that we want every other freckle, that we genuinely appreciate one part or one aspect of a being and not others. Rather, the qualities we may like and dislike spring from a whole context, such as a given bent of personality, a given set of genetic or epigenetic capabilities and vulnerabilities, a given family background and personal history, and the accumulation of choices made by that individual over time that have formed their character. To be sure, we are all unequal and different mixtures of good and evil, strength and weakness, comfort and irritation, and these have a context and a coherence. We are all in the same boat, all seeking to be understood, to be viewed with mercy and charity, and so we ought to judge others as we wish to be judged, in full awareness that we are responsible for the judgments we make. In light of the fact that is a responsibility we cannot avoid, we ought to take it as seriously as possible and do it as well as we can, so that nothing can hinder us from being the best people possible to serve as the image and likeness of God to the world around us.
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