I had a bit of a surprise in church this morning. During the sermon, the visiting preacher, Pastor Paul Hontz of Central Wesleyan Church in Holland, Michigan, showed a brief video to make a point about attentiveness. In it, we’re asked to watch two teams of young people passing basketballs, and to count the number of passes made by the team in white. If you haven’t seen the video, watch it before you continue reading.
I, of course, being the somewhat competitive person that I sometimes am, dutifully focused my attention, and counted the number of passes. After silently congratulating myself for having counted correctly, I went completely blank when the narrator asked, “But did you see the moonwalking bear?” The what??? Even after the replay, I wasn’t entirely convinced that the bear was actually there the first time, and had to look it up on the Internet just to be sure.
This was actually a public safety commercial, warning drivers to watch out for people on bicycles: “It’s easy to miss something you’re not looking for.” The commercial draws upon research on what psychologists have come to call inattentional blindness. More examples can be seen at The Invisible Gorilla website. My personal favorite: out on the street, a young man (who is in cahoots with the research team recording the interaction) is asking an older man for directions. As they’re talking, people carrying a door pass between them. In one smoothly rehearsed move, one of the men carrying the door switches places with the young man asking directions, and after the door passes, carries on the conversation as if nothing had happened. And the older gentleman, bless his soul, picks up where he left off, not noticing that he is giving directions to an entirely different person.
Psychologists use experiments like this to show that perception and memory don’t work the way we think they do. We think we’re taking everything in, recording details as if our eyes and brains operated like video cameras. But the truth is, we only notice a very small fraction of what’s going on around us, depending on where we focus our attention.
Pastor Hontz’s point was that on any given Sunday, we may notice all kinds of things about the church service–things we like, things we don’t like–and miss the presence of God.
The point is well taken, and well worth pondering. Because in all likelihood, it goes way beyond Sunday. What we don’t attend to, we don’t see. What we don’t see, for us, doesn’t exist. And when it comes to the work of God in the world, or to the movement of the Holy Spirit in our lives, to what extent might we suffer from a spiritual form of inattentional blindness? How might we miss an answer to prayer, because it wasn’t the answer we were watching for?
A further caution: researchers also tell us that people who are presumed to be experts in some skill may be more susceptible to inattentional blindness than novices. Greater awareness does not necessarily come with experience. Our professional training may so focus our attention in set directions that we fail to notice what might be obvious to someone else. Such is the fatal lesson of the Eastern Airlines flight crew whose plane crashed because they were so intent on finding why a warning light in the cockpit was flashing that they didn’t hear the alarm or see the ground rushing to meet them.
Who knows how many moonwalking bears are hiding in plain sight? It’s not only easy to miss something you’re not looking for, it’s normal. If we want to see what God is doing, we have to look. And we have to be willing to accept as simple fact that we are often looking for the wrong thing.