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Gerry Turcotte: Seeing is believing straight from the heart

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  • September 27, 2019

For many of us of a certain age, “Who Are You?” by the Who is a seminal song, made popular again as the theme music to the TV show CSI

Pete Townsend reputedly wrote the anthem after an exhausting day fighting music publishers for the rights to his songs, and then getting blind drunk in despair. A policeman woke him in an alley and sent him on his way, having recognized the musical celebrity. In the case of the TV crime show, of course, the theme song speaks of the quest that law enforcement often undertakes to identify bodies and isolate a cause of death.

I read recently of a fascinating medical condition known as prosopagnosia, a neurological disorder defined as an inability to recognize faces. In severe cases, an individual is unable even to recognize their own features. For many with this condition, props are needed — specific clothing, a piece of jewellery — to help them identify a loved one. 

Agnosia is another fascinating condition that causes individuals to be unable to recognize everything from faces to sounds, shapes to objects. This condition was made famous by Oliver Sacks’ wonderful book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.

Identity, of course, is central to most of us. We are raised with the thought that we should “make a name for ourselves” and “stand above the crowd” because success is measured as distinctiveness and recognizability. 

The proliferation of Twitter, Instagram and other forms of social media is built on this obsession to “be someone” and to accumulate as many “likes” as is humanly possible. Indeed, recently Instagram decided to remove the possibility of counting “likes” because of the corrosive impact the quest for acceptance in the social ether is having on people. My prediction is that this functionality will return. People want to be identified.

All of this is about how we recognize, and in turn, how we are recognized by others. Who we are matters. This is why dementia in loved ones is so brutal. To feel our own identity disappear from the memories of those who loved us deeply is surely one of the most tragic circumstances we can experience because part of who we are is constituted by how our loved ones know us. 

My mother had the infuriating ability to ignore the many stupid things I always did and to commend me for the good I managed to do in spite of myself. The truth, though, is that her selective memory actually made me stronger, made me try harder to actually do good, and it made me feel valued no matter how difficult the situation. I don’t know how I would have coped if I had slipped from her memory. 

I thought of all these related things as a result of reading a number of passages from the Bible that have always struck me as fascinating and odd. Instances of mistaken identity abound in the Bible, and those that have most intrigued me were about Jesus Himself. This is most especially true following the Resurrection. 

In John and in Luke we are told that those closest to Him failed to recognize Jesus. Even Mary Magdalene, at the tomb, fails to know Him until Jesus speaks her name (John 20: 14-18). Encountering two angels, Mary weeps in despair. Jesus appears behind her and asks, “why are you weeping?” and she turns and mistakes Him for a gardener. “Sir, if you have carried Him away, tell me where you have laid Him.” When Jesus says her name, however, her eyes are opened.

There are similar moments when the disciples fail to recognize Jesus after the Resurrection, including on the road to Emmaus. Many who have theorized about this issue have pointed to references in the Bible to bad light or distance as reasons for this failed recognition. For many commentators, it is the holes in Jesus’s hands and feet that convince the onlookers of His true identity, in the same way that those with prosopagnosia need props to identify a loved one. 

To my mind, however, the real answer is given in Luke when he writes that “their eyes were kept from recognizing Him” (Luke 24: 15-16), a phrasing that suggests this delayed recognition was part of God’s plan. To paraphrase John Heywood in 1546, “there are none so blind as those who will not see,” and it is surely part of God’s plan that our eyes be opened by true belief — not simply by empirical evidence, though we crave it, and certainly not by “blind faith,” that pejorative phrase so often used to denounce believers. 

Rather, God’s call is that we believe the evidence of the heart that has opened itself to Christ. That, in the end, is the truest sign of who we really are.

(Turcotte is president of St. Mary’s University in Calgary.)

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