There is one who thinks himself rich, yet has nothing; there is one who thinks himself poor, yet has great wealth. The ransom of a man’s life are his riches, but only if the poor hears no reproof. The light of the righteous remains joyful, but the lamp of the wicked will flicker out (Proverbs 13:7-9).
Having already examined the sages’ observation that only one who is happy with his lot is truly rich, this proverb at first appears to add nothing new. Clearly, a happy man with little money is wealthier than an unhappy man with silver and gold.
But here Solomon offers a different lesson. It may be true that man finds joy in his portion only by defining his life with a sense of purpose; but it is also necessary for his life’s purpose to be one of intrinsic value. A research science may feel fulfilled by devoting his career to the discovery of a perpetual motion machine, but his pursuit of an impossible dream renders any sense of fulfillment as illusory as if it were the product of an opium daze. So too, the Guinness Book of World Records is filled with the names of people who invested unthinkable amounts of time and energy becoming best at the most trivial of pursuits.
In the same way that satiety can be more dangerous than deprivation, superficiality may be the most deceptive form of blindness. For just as satisfaction leads to complacency and indolence, similarly does two-dimensional perception convince us that there is nothing more to our world than what meets the eye, persuading us to accept a shallow view of reality as complete when the true nature of our universe lies hidden beneath the surface. On the other hand, just as hunger sparks the survival instinct that sharpens our awareness and focuses our efforts, so too does impaired physical vision compel us to take extra caution and seek out sure guidance.
A king once sent his son on a diplomatic mission to another country. As he finished preparing his son on the topics of negotiation, the king said, “There is one more matter of the utmost importance. While you are on this trip, under no circumstances are you to enter into any kind of bet or wager.”
Since the prince rarely gambled, his father’s warning seemed odd to him. However, he had no reason to argue and readily agreed.
The next day, as he boarded the ship that would carry him abroad, his father bid him safe journey and again cautioned him, “Remember, no matter what you must not accept a bet.”
Perplexed by the king’s insistence, but not overly concerned, the prince repeated his assurance.
The prince’s mission went smoothly and negotiations with the foreign minister were successfully concluded. As the two of them enjoyed a final meal together, the foreign minister remarked, “You are a very skillful negotiator,” he said, “which is all the more impressive because of your handicap.”
“What handicap is that?” asked the prince, taken aback.
“Why, that you are a hunchback,” replied the minister.
The prince looked astonished. “I have no idea what you are talking about,” he exclaimed.
“Oh, you conceal it very well,” said the minister, “and I apologize for bringing it up, as I’m sure it is a source of embarrassment.”
“There is no embarrassment involved,” replied the prince, “since I am not a hunchback.”
“Between the two of us there is no need to deny it,” insisted the minister. “I am quite adept at noticing details. By the way you walk and the way you carry yourself I can see clearly that you are.”
“I’m afraid you are mistaken,” replied the prince, beginning to grow angry.
“See here,” said the minister, appearing somewhat heated himself. “I pride myself on my ability to notice what others do not. Not only do I say you are a hunchback, but I will bet you a hundred thousand rubles that I am right.”
Immediately, the prince remembered his father’s warning. But certainly his father could not have anticipated a circumstance like this one. This was not gambling. This was a sure thing.
“I accept,” said the prince, and promptly removed his shirt, revealing that he was undeniably not a hunchback.
“Now I am the one who is embarrassed,” said the minister as he counted out a large number of bills and handed them over. “I can’t understand how I could have been so mistaken. Please accept my apologies with your winnings.”
The prince returned home and, upon greeting his father, eagerly recounted the way he had profited a hundred thousand rubles.
Instead of pleasure, the king turned red with anger. “Did I not tell you to refuse any wager?” he demanded. “Let me tell you now that I bet the foreign minister half a million rubles that he could not get you to take a bet!”
Professional magicians depend upon misplaced certitude for the success of their illusions. Through subtle manipulations, they redirect our attention so that we fail to notice their slight-of-hand. Since we are watching carefully, we have trouble believing that we could be fooled. But by guiding our focus away from where they don’t want us to look, they achieve the illusion of real magic.
Anyone who has learned the tricks of misdirection easily spots how the magician performs his “magic.” Of course, by destroying the illusion, he no longer finds the magician’s act the least bit entertaining.
The applications of misdirection extend far beyond stage magic, as Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons discovered when they conducted their now-famous psychology experiment at Harvard University. You may have seen their video, in which three people in white shirts and three people in black shirts are passing basketballs back and forth; viewers are instructed to count how many times the white-shirted players pass the basketball. When the video ends, a caption on the screen reads: The correct answer is 15 passes. But did you see the gorilla?
I was one of the 50 percent who failed to see the man in the gorilla suit that walked in between the players, faced the camera, thumped his chest, then wandered out of view. On their website, the authors of The Invisible Gorilla explain:
This experiment reveals two things: that we are missing a lot of what goes on around us, and that we have no idea that we are missing so much. To our surprise, it has become one of the best-known experiments in psychology. It is described in most introductory textbooks and is featured in more than a dozen science museums. It has been used by everyone from preachers and teachers to corporate trainers and terrorist hunters, not to mention characters on the TV show C.S.I., to help explain what we see and what we don’t see. And it got us thinking that many other intuitive beliefs that we have about our own minds might be just as wrong.
The more certain we are of what we are seeing, the less attention we pay to what is in front of us. Twilight is a particularly dangerous time to drive, since we can still see but don’t process that our perception is impaired by the failing light. Once night has fallen we compensate automatically for the full darkness with greater attention and caution. It is when we mistakenly believe that we can see clearly that we are most likely to err.
Conversely, the less clear something is the more we have to concentrate to recognize and interpret it. Optical illusions work through ambiguous imagery, like the famous picture that appears now as an old woman and a moment later as a young woman, or the single figure that oscillates between a duck and a rabbit. The popular Magic Eye posters use computers to generate pictures that we have to learn how to look at through a long process of trial and error. (It took me months to master the technique, during which time I suspected that the whole thing was a colossal hoax and that there was really no image hidden amidst the confusion of lines and colors.) Even after we figure out how to see the hidden image, it vanishes in a single moment of inattention and the picture before us returns to randomness.
The attraction of optical illusions, however, comes from the thrill of discovering order within chaos, which almost always requires using our perceptive ability in an unconventional way.
In this we identify another aspect of the Mona Lisa’s smile. The Italians have a word for it: sfumato, meaning that which is blurred, ambiguous, and left to the imagination. It describes the way La Gioconda’s smile seems to come and go, taking form as we look at her and then vanishing if we look too long.
Harvard neuroscientist Margaret Livingstone suggests that the mystery may be explained by understanding the design of the human eye. We perceive brightness and color through the cones that are concentrated in the fovea, the central part of the eye. Fainter objects are more easily detected by the rods, which occupy the outer regions of the eye and perceive dim, monochromatic light.
First alluded to by Aristotle, the phenomenon called averted vision allows us to process information by looking away from an object of interest, just as a filter makes it possible to study the nuances of the sun’s surface by eliminating the intense light that makes direct observation impossible. Since the cones that make up the fovea register brighter light, we have to rely on the peripheral rods to capture subtleties of shading. But that only works when we look away.
When we gaze at any painting, we tend to focus on the eyes the same way we do when we look at another person. Dr. Livingstone explains that, by focusing on Mona Lisa’s eyes we enable our peripheral vision to process the other details of her face. The peripheral rods, however, are attuned to shading and not detail, so they pick up the shadows below the cheekbones, which hint at the curvature of Mona Lisa’s smile.
When we look directly at the smile, however, the shadows are lost by the fovea’s cones. “You’ll never be able to catch her smile by looking at her mouth,” Dr. Livingstone says. But look away again, and the smile returns.
We have all experienced instances of looking directly at an object and failing to see it, either because it is so familiar or unremarkable that our minds filter it out as irrelevant, or because it is so incongruous that our subconscious refuses to accept its presence – like the invisible gorilla. In such cases, we may notice an object only when we are looking elsewhere and our peripheral vision, unencumbered by the censorship of our expectations, draws our attention back to what had previously hidden in plain sight.
Dr. Livingstone admits that it is not clear why later artists have not adopted Leonardo’s technique, and wonders whether doing so would require painting the mouth by looking away from it. If so, then Mona Lisa herself could not have been created without using that same process.
There is one who thinks himself rich, yet has nothing; there is one who thinks himself poor, yet has great wealth.
Seeing is believing.
Most of us have learned to accept this axiom of human experience with almost theological conviction, so much so that we invest anything appearing before our eyes with the imprimatur of absolute truth. Ironically, our own experience tells us that it just isn’t so.
Modern science has discovered that all matter is composed of molecules, which are composed of atoms, which are composed of protons, neutrons, and electrons (which may someday be discovered to contain even tinier particles). How easy should it be for us, therefore, to appreciate that the complexities of our world are not always revealed to the naked eye, and that much of our universe is not at all how it appears?
Solomon teaches that emotional and spiritual maturity involve relearning how to look at the world we live in. Our knowledge of the world’s deceptive nature compels us to look deeper if we hope to gain any insight into the underlying reality of creation. When confronted by the contradictions of our universe, we can either retreat into the self-deception of superficiality or we can grapple with uncertainty by delving deeper. That very process, whether or not it yields the answers we hope to find, is itself a source of immeasurable wealth.
A wealthy man became obsessed by the suspicion that criminals were plotting to steal his fortune. He began hiding his gold and silver in secret places to protect it.
Then the man died unexpectedly, leaving no record of where he had hidden his money. His son, who knew that his father had possessed great riches, found only a small bag of silver coins among his father’s estate. Having believed that he stood to inherit a fortune, the son was devastated.
As the son held the meager cache of silver in his hand, one of the coins slipped through his fingers, rolled across the floor, and disappeared between the floorboards. With so small an inheritance, he could not afford to lose even a single coin, so he was forced to pull up the floorboard to recover it. There he found a large bag of gold hidden by his father.
Having discovered one hiding place, the son began searching for more, occasionally uncovering new stores of treasure. He never did find the single lost coin, but he became wealthier by far than that one coin would have made him.
Satisfied with his riches, a wealthy man may end up pursuing no goals other than his own gratification; by depriving himself of the sense of purpose that brings happiness, in the end his riches will leave him impoverished. Conversely, a poor man who struggles to support his family may discover, amidst his toil, an appreciation for the unexpected opportunities that come his way and a deeper love for those whose sustenance necessitates his labor.
In the language of Solomon, the term for gratitude is hakores hatov, literally “recognition of the good.” When we take good fortune for granted, we fail to recognize it as a blessing; and when we fail to appreciate what we have, we have truly nothing. But if we see our difficulties as opportunities and recognize the potential they offer us as a blessing of good, we enrich our lives beyond the value of gold and silver.
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