I never thought to trim the lower branches of a magnolia tree to create a canopy covering a bare trunk until I saw one on a brief road trip recently. Once I saw one, I saw them everywhere, including on a later drive back to my hometown, a drive I’ve made hundreds of times over my entire life. Including in the yard of the parents of a dear friend, a yard I’ve visited on occasion for the last 25 years or more.
I never thought to wonder about how today’s citizens of Benin, on the Western coast of Africa, thought of the trans-Atlantic slave trade or the descendants of the enslaved Africans who now make up some percentage of the broad category of Black Americans, until we watched the first episode of High on the Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America. Having now watched all four episodes, I can say there are a lot of things I hadn’t thought to wonder about packed into that beautifully-produced series.
I never thought to wonder about an experience I’ve described from problematic romantic relationships – excusing each red flag as human messiness until one day looking back and seeing a sea of red flags – was relevant to spycraft and the kinds of complex legal proceedings that make the news until I started listening to Malcolm Gladwell’s book Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don’t Know last week.
Clients will sometimes berate themselves once they get the fresh perspective that is the core of coaching. It’s all so obvious – the way they’re getting in their own way, the broadened array of possibilities, the in-between space where the complexity lives – once they see it.
Once I saw the trimmed magnolias, once I thought about the lingering impact of the trans-Atlantic slave trade in Benin, once I was exposed to a new-to-me array of unconscious human biases, they all seemed obvious.
Of course magnolias can be trimmed, keeping them from taking up enormous amounts of yard space. Of course people in modern Benin are aware of and have a relationship to their relationship to both the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the ancestors of those enslaved Africans here in the States (and elsewhere). Of course humans have an array of biases, like the truth-default theory, that are mostly beneficial and occasionally bite us hard in our rears.
Of course hand washing prevents the spread of illness.
Of course seat belts save lives.
Of course children shouldn’t be made – or even allowed – to work in mines, as chimney sweeps, or in factories.
And yet, before the of course was a blind spot, will always be a blind spot, because we can never know everything.
Knowing we don’t know everything, though, is a mighty fine place to start.
Being gentle with ourselves as we discover what was hidden in plain sight is critical fuel to continuing to practice seeing more clearly.