Secret Life of the Obvious
Zoologia comica, A. Oberlander 1877 PD Wikimedia
If that which is not there is difficult to see, that which is obvious, plain and evident, is at times even harder to notice.
You will agree though that the obvious is the very face of reality. Missing the obvious makes us stupid. Not missing the things right under our nose is our last protection against danger, loss and disappointment; it grants our judgement to be sound and wise, with feet on ground.
But do fishes notice water? No, because it is all around them. Is water vital for fishes? Certainly, it is.
Indeed, there is a plenty of such manifest and meaningful things around us, on clear display, lying there on our way; some we see, but some important ones we pain to notice, and only if we turn our heads towards them with intent and rub our eyes.
Insidiously, the obvious things turn invisible , like chameleons; those things that were around us or with us for a long, long time, stable, unmoving, became part of the furniture, part of the unquestioned background, of received tradition, or even part of us, self-evident, and beyond suspicion.
Unfortunately, the more I neglect this obvious grown imperceptible, the more it rules my life: It shapes surreptitiously my limits; or I risk to stumble unawares into it. On the other hand, if I care to rediscover it, I wake up and navigate my little boat, mindfully, to more freedom.
Take notice of the obvious and suddenly, instead of nodding sheepishly "This is how things are." you gain the power to make choices which you and most people around you ignored before.
Why this happens? How it happens?
The obvious is best disguised into itself. One obvious hides another.
After a while you don’t notice any more the sound of the seaside tides, the cries of the children playing, the regular train passing, the wind in the leaves, the village dogs barking and the meaning of words repeated all the time. You just skip them.
After centuries of parroting, most claims and maxims of common sense sound eternal and true, let's hope that mostly because they do work. Nobody would spend an instant to examine them. They became references. Habit, familiarity, trust in received opinion and authority are valuable, but also have this hidden price of selective blindness and thus freedom diminished. Keep in mind this danger; if you repeat slogans endlessly they will become obvious for you (even some false ones), and you will end up believing them. Take a warning note of the falsities you are obliged to repeat endlessly.
Try to repeat a word that means something to you many, many times; after a while you will feel that those sounds which were significant together lose their sense and become noises.
Accustomed, we don’t feel the smell of a place where we live. It may stink, but we consider it normal.
Some of the biggest things around us dissolve into background scene, too huge to count and seemingly too big to fail.
Ever present things do not show, they are often forgotten from inventories.
Still, quiet things, fade from attention. Our body believes that big things don't move and unmoving things are harmless.
On the other hand, proverbially, while we see the mote in our brother's eye we ignore the steady beam in our own.
Some other conspicuous things, we overlook - in spite of their importance - because we are weak, unable to face them and we allow our judgment to slumber; we do not see what we do not wish to see, hoping that it will go away or solve itself. We grow blind to things we cannot cope with. We see and hear but we keep forgetting at once as if under a spell of neglect. Our attention is so easily diverted... we just move on with inertia and sleep-walk unable to draw the undesired conclusion and to do something.
We ignore the large writ on the wall, spelling clearly that we head into trouble, that people can’t stand us anymore and will soon bite, that love is gone, that the trusted cheat us or prepare to forsake us. We cannot bear to notice our children becoming strangers and our parents growing senile. Nations head to war, the company goes bust, greed and technology ruin our civilisation, the revolution turns perverse, while we have too much stake in them to see clear and hear change ringing.
We work miracles to keep ourselves blind.
Too big to see, too simple to understand
How banal to say that the obvious is that which is right in front of us, readily accessible to our observation, to our senses or being credible knowledge we have! Curiously, such obviousness is not sufficient. To become active, the things easily acceptable as obvious need to come alive for us by the experience of understanding. Only when understood does the evidence become awareness we are able to respond to, so that we would do something because of what it means.
The most amazing for me is to observe how we only apprehend things fit to our size and relative to us. This is perfectly illustrated by that tragic-comic image, my favourite: a valiant knight shouts by a cave entrance: “Come out, Dragon, I dare you to fight!” It’s only that what he takes for the cave entrance is the dragon’s nostril.
We do not grasp the incommensurable, out of proportion with us, with which we have no common standard of measurement: the trillions of billions, the hazy dots shown by the electronic microscope in a cell, or all the same, the blurred dots being huge stars of the infinite, mean nothing to us, exactly like the hypocrite warnings of cancer and death on cigarette packs. We keep reading misleading small lettered warnings of well-known, poisonous cancer-giving "E"-additives on the packs of food, on the vegetables and fruit we buy ever cheaper. It is simply that we cannot draw the conclusion that our governments do not protect us anymore ovewhelmed by the creativity of the merchants, so that the risk is now our own business. Figuring out that the illusive XXth century social contract is gone, is too enormous for us. Therefore we will go on like cattle to the sloughterhouse. I write "we" because I am no better.
The rationally obvious and the readily observable fact keep invisible for us in a way even more perverse: there is a number of things we know about as evident, proven to our reason, but for various reasons we still cannot or avoid understanding them. The obvious known, comes alive for us to do something about it only when understanding turns it into personal image, vivid and simple enough to be of our size; otherwise we stay paralysed and dumb.
The things smalled below our threshold or amplified huge - in proportions or in meaning - we do not grasp; this makes a narrow human window of perception and judgement with limited parameters in wave-length, amplitude, intensity and nature. We are the measure of all things we conceive.
Turning "obvious" things out of proportion for normal people into observable evidence is work for a skilled translator.
Consider the paradoxical and strategic implications of the fact that people do not perceive things being too small or too big, too far away or too close, too wide or too narrow, too unimportant or too important for us (remember the metaphor of “waiting to be hit by a slow-moving truck”), too slow and gradual or too sudden and fast, always present or usually absent, too often repeated or not often enough to be remarked, too general, complicated and abstract or too simple, too respectable or too unworthy, too familiar or too alien, too similar or too different too few or too many...
Imagine the practical implications of such blindness!
Want to hide something? To camouflage it purposefully? Want to put critical sense to sleep? Nothing hides like the obvious. Make it big and conspicuous and indisputable, of blinding clarity!
The best place to hide relevant things is the obvious appearance, the common place and the common ground:
Splash loudly elsewhere, to divert attention.
Turn the field-glass on the other side, "microscope" it, display the irrelevant level of detail.
Drown it in prolific, precise detail and in specialist words defined with dormitive detail.
Bury it in the middle of a crowd. Dump a haystack over it.
Build a monument to it.
Show many trees until you hide the forest.
Write on it: "Drink with moderation!"
Do it swiftly but without hurry, or accelerate, keep them busy, with an elegant air of normal, legitimate action.
Keep within kissing distance.
Disguise its jaws in Grand-mother’s night gown.
Represent that everybody knows it that everybody is doing it and all people accept it, that this is how things are and always were.
Present the absolute truth, the universal explanation, the abstract maze of causes, as complicated as they are. Endorse it by uncontested authorities.
Use simple words, common places and unquestioned maxims so that the victims are misled to take it for common sense.
Form a committee.
Repeat it until everybody grows deaf to it.
Say “It is obvious!”
You see how vulnerable we are to the cosmetics of the evident?
In my change management interventions I tested many times that nothing in a discussion or an instruction given is more misleading and endangering future agreement that declaring for a start that “it’s obvious” instead of describing what is obvious to each party and also why.
To defeat this blindness I learned to ask: “And what exactly is obvious? Why? obvious to whom ? To me? to you? To everybody? Everywhere? All the time?
At times I even venture to say disruptively: “It is not obvious to me!” But when you ask such questions about primitive notions and undefined starting points beware; the gates of Hell are about to opened at the same time with the gates of free thinking; people will not like to be made to think.
The obvious under our feet
All I wrote up to now is only hors d’oeuvre though;
the sort of “obviousness” really difficult to observe is disguised without intention to cheat and much better, underground, at the n-1 floor: closest and deeper, under our feet or grown into the fabric of our own eyes and mind, into our roots.
Best hidden to awareness is the very stuff we are made of and the substance of who we became; the axioms taken for granted, the deep, firm convictions and feelings, values, tastes, the basic beliefs which make us be who we are.
We select out and spot instinctively what we expect to see. Then, we trust our eyes. We are hypnotised by our common sense. If we understand something readily, if it looks simple, it is real or at least it exists and its course makes sense. Existence exists and "nothing" doesn’t, all things must have one and only one identity, we think, therefore we exist, good is good and bad is bad and so on...
Some of our building blocks go unexamined for our whole life. This is how we may be determined by things unknown to us; freed of the spell, by noticing them, we could gain many degrees of freedom .
Our axioms, as basic assumptions, are the the riverbeds of our thoughts, the compass of our judgment and choices and our actions; most of them we inherited from trusted people and from authorities, they look inherent, seem to be there from eternity, as if out of sight, so that we would not question them. Do you question the mountain? Do you doubt the floor under your feet, in your own house?
The words we use, the grammar and the turns of the language, contain encapsuled logic and judgements so that when we think and speak with those words we think unknowingly with other people's thoughts. Do we care to actually own the obvious words we use?
When did I, if ever, list and audit my basic assumptions? Those things I am absolutely certain of? The unquestionable ones? Those things I believe I know to be verified? Those that split my world into possible and impossible, existent or nonexistent, true or false, good or evil, useful or useless, beautiful or ugly, serious or trivial? Those notions change in time but we do not notice the alteration. It is difficult to see myself as a frog, boiling slowly in a cauldron of imperceptibly evolving meaning.
To compare myself with a mirror, I reflect whatever appears in front of me, at various distances but not too far or close to the me - the mirror itself. As things get closer and closer they mask some of the perspective and create dead angles and blind spots; because of the trees I do not see the forest. When something came so close as to become part of my view, of the glasses through which I look, of my retina, of me the mirror that reflects, how can I perceive that? It is it which sees.
Our natural awareness is a mirror made of axioms and received thinking.
Investigating this weakness is - as you grow aware of it - an unexpected source of intelligence: marvel why some unquestionable, long held belief is so certain, inquisit why something obvious is out of question, and look at it otherwise. You will be revolutionary; or at least you may change yourself. Such iconoclast challenge makes Nietzsche eye-opening to read.
Detecting the obvious, the one which we do not notice any more, is a vital art of liberation; glimpses that can change the world.
It is easier to say than to do
All this is easy to say but what to do about it? The useless conclusion is that our senses and memories cheat us, our common sense is no good and our judgement false. Various visionaries come with such news to tell us that the real world is not what we experience but the one they reveal and proclaim, so that we must follow them. Science does almost the same in all good faith; it invites us not to believe our impressions and intuitive reasoning but to delegate all knowing to its specialists, the knowers and witnesses of verified truth too-complicated- for- common- people- to-understand.
I do not see much good in convincing people not to trust their own mind; we must instead accept and work around this “blindness” without moving our life into monasteries at the feet of gurus or into laboratories at the feet of the experts of the day.
These abstract philosophical issues can be turned into more practical questions:
How to observe that which you do not observe? How to step out of the invisible prison of ready-made thinking?
How to notice, by ourselves, the obvious turned imperceptible? How to detect it, how to discern it from the merely neutral “obvious” background? How to evaluate the importance and potential of change of something so evident that it escapes your attention? How to wake up to it? How to seek and get help? How to help other people to do the same? What to do when people cannot or do not want to see the obvious? How to awaken people?
There are some beacons indicating where you should very probably care to doubt, open your eyes and think twice. In a social context the marker of the suspect obvious is that people say:
This is how it is
It is natural, objective, scientific etc (without explaining why it is so)
It was always so
Everybody agrees that...
And of course, when you hear the magic words “It is obvious!”
The question is still “How to open my eyes when they are open already?”
Noticing things is spontaneous but it can also become a habit and a role we play consciously: to institute ourselves as observers, thus becoming aware.
Once I accepted that the obvious is suspect I started to rise my ears whenever I meet it.
As an "observer" you are set, at the same time, to take a distance and to concentrate attention; to disengage but keep your eyes and ears open, and more, to watch out. Our worst enemy in discerning the obvious is certainty, to be convinced that we know it all and that the obvious is obvious for us.
Systematic modesty is very useful; be convinced that you know little, accept your ignorance humbly and you will see more than other people.
The next-best revealer is sketching some change; we notice that which moves and ignore that which stands still.
Move things a little or move yourself! The obvious will flicker. Zoom-out or zoom-in (in your imagination or even in space) to perceive a form, some shape that makes sense to you. Mingle with things; it is well said that to really, really, know something you should try to change it.
A revealer of unexpected things hiding under obviousness is to look closer at the name-tag and the point of view, which are often automatic because of the name, or the tool you use. If you carry a hammer many things will look like nails. For me, if is often illuminating to try and call a common thing with another name or handle it with another, less usual tool to see what happens.
Expatriating things away from their familiar context is another magic wand. Well, how does a fish experience the importance of water? By being taken out of it, on the dry shore. Change then the frame of reference, in your mind or even physically.
You fathom the well when it runs dry. Food steals the show when you are hungry. You prize company when you are alone. Cover your eyes to see the value of eyesight.
In praise of strangers
You may need help to detect your axioms. It is easier to observe other people’s basic assumptions than yours; particularly when they are dissimilar with yours; then, other people not yet grown into your culture may be useful to detect your unquestionable beliefs; especially very different people coming from somewhere else; or you, visiting somewhere else.
It is not necessary to be more intelligent to observe what other people do not; it is sufficient to be different; to look from a different angle, downwards or upwards, to displace the person physically – or at least mentally; this is often achieved by a different situation, position, context or role.
Talk then with alien people, if possible individuals dissimilar to you, new, not under the same spell, with different received ideas, outsiders from unfamiliar cultures or specialisations: foreigners, visitors, immigrants, consultants, beggars, revolutionaries, thieves, artists ... They do not need to be geniuses, not even more specialised than you, just different enough to notice different things, with another frame of reference; enemies particularly can help you, better than your friends, if as Balthasar Gracian wrote you know how to use them . The condition is however that you must be able to respect those people, be modest enough and dare ask their opinion, listen to what they say without discounting their advice under the stupid reason that “they cannot help, they are not from here”. Yes, they can! You must also act contrary to the arrogant, narrow-minded custom to ask newcomers to keep their mouth shut and learn "the way we do things here" before gaining the right to speak.
You may not have those valuable fresh strangers around; then it is you who can go – with due prudence - far away to alien places or to unusual, unfamiliar environments which you find if you care even next door. You would experience what people see in you and what you see different in them. Travellers grow wiser. Some of them.
There is much simpler, arm-chair travel: reading books and growing your culture is another way of visiting far-away territory: manifold knowledge multiplies the mirrors in which you see yourself and the lenses through which you look. Education is a marvellous continent to explore. But culture takes time.
Help other people to see the obvious
All I advise to do to ourselves you can do to other people, to help them or to compel them to see the omitted obvious.
As it is easier to observe other people’s basic assumptions than yours, it means that as other people can help you, you can help them (just avoid helping the old lady across the street when she wants to stay on this side-walk).
To awake other people, the technique of digging beyond and behind the obvious is the same as for us, with an addition of skills, strategies and tactics of dealing with people: causing persons to take distance and look closer, from a new point of view, to try a new task or interest, a new position or role to play, a new light, a new angle, a new situation a new frame of reference;
Use the power to make things simple. To help see something new, show a meaningful part of it, zoom, translate it simple, start with the end consequence, shake, destabilize, unsettle, paradox or ask some viral question that works by itself in the mind.
My preferred way is to ask compelling questions, to amplify things until they become striking or absurd; when I am not listened to, I do unexpected things acting like question marks.
Make the familiar look new, with new clothes, new words, especially new image.
You can affect people to observe something you notice and they don’t; but that is not sufficient, it is like giving them a fish to feed them for the day only; to find a way to awaken them to mind by themselves their usual blind spots and dead angles and to examine their certainties is like teaching them to fish - an act of emancipation. Then, you fed them for a lifetime. Or you drown them...
Beyond my list of artifice, the great revealer of the deeply obvious is dramatic change; you cannot toy with it but it will happen often enough; when it happens, it may be an occasion you can seize to show the obvious even to the blind – just make certain that your life is safe while you do it. Keep practical, use question marks not attention marks, say “us” and look as humble as you can. Be aware that you wield big power.
The power of the mind. You can think it out.
The great concealer of axioms is the absence of doubt. Intelligent reason should visit its basic assumptions, regularly; but it doesn’t. This is a disquieting bottomless well to sound.
Usually I defend intuition and common sense, because I find that they are mistreated, a Cinderella of modern Western thought; but in this case, of the Obvious, I find that we gain from doubting our intuition which appeases us that something is evident, in favour of non - intuitive reasoning. At times we must go beyond appearance, with abstract deduction.
When people know with certainty what is impossible and what is necessary it becomes worth turning some solid stones to see what is under them.
Critical situations heated by danger and opportunity, crisis where things are decided or you must decide, can make one experience something like a veil lifted from the eyes. However, as you are busy and taken in such moments, you only see the unexpected and the wider if you are convinced in advance that emergency is a time of new truth, if you formed a habit of learning from crisis and if you keep in mind firmly the value of this learning beyond the here and now. Otherwise, crisis is only a time when you are too busy to think. I do not propose that you should provoke crises, just prepare mentally to make use of them when they inevitably visit your life, or other peoples' from time to time. Now, while you do what you must do, open your eyes, your ears and humbly, your mind.
To find out which are the axioms you are made of, try with patience to list them and even write them down for inspection. I call them axioms, but usually they are in simple words the facts, the beliefs and convictions you never question. This writing is very difficult; whenever I inspect them, my axioms bite back and confuse me...
In an important situation, seek out which facts and knowledge beyond doubt are at work. Give those factors names. Define them, describe them and evaluate their importance and consequences. Try to imagine other, more adequate or more favourable names. Old labels often obscure the obvious . Then, question and challenge the obvious at the root: “Why exactly it must be so? Why it is impossible? Who says so? Where is it necessary or impossible? Only here or everywhere? Really?! For whom; for you or for the entire humanity? With what means? At what size? Within what frame of time? Forever? Which pieces in this puzzle would, if changed, make the impossible possible and the necessary less so? Maybe you or somebody else, somewhere else, with different means has other axioms.
Such reasoning, if your brain can take it without a big headache, will surprise you and may change your life; it will do the same to other people, so do not expect them to be friendly while you are playing with fire and with radical change in their worldview.
© 2012 Ioan Tenner & Daniel Tenner
 "The aspects of things that are most important for us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity. (One is unable to notice some-thing because it is always before one’s eyes.) The real foundations of their inquiry do not strike people at all. Unless that fact has at some time struck them. And this means: we fail to be struck by what, once seen, is most striking and most powerful." — Wittgenstein, Ludwig, Philosophical Investigations,Tr. G. E. M. Anscombe, P. M. S. Hacker and Joachim Schulte, Blackwell Publishing Ltd, Chichester, 2009, #129
 Gracian Balthasar, The Art of Worldly Wisdom, (Tr Joseph Jacobs) MACMILLAN AND CO, London, N.Y., 1904, p 49: Ixxxiv "Make use of your Enemies... A wise man gets more use from his enemies than a fool from his friends. Their ill-will often levels mountains of difficulties which one would otherwise not face. ... The wise will turn ill-will into a mirror ..."