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The kind of truth you can’t argue with

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To this day I’m not entirely sure he was speeding. Maybe 55 in a 50. But it made me insane for a brief moment.

Just before that I had been in supremely thoughtful and grateful mood, just having visited my one-year-old nephew. Little kids make me more mindful, of how abruptly I move, of where I put my feet, of what I say, until I forget.

When I left my sister’s house the world felt like a china shop to me. Priceless and deserving of care.

So when the little Hyundai with the skinny driver came whipping thoughtlessly around the curve in front of the house, I couldn’t bear it. The Holden Caulfield in me took over and I slammed on the horn.

My car was still parked, so for him the honk must have come out of nowhere, and he almost jumped out of his seat, like he was in a cartoon.

He was a young guy with thick glasses, altogether harmless looking, and I felt bad immediately. I’m sure he had no idea I existed, or why anyone was honking at all.

I just wanted him to slow down on a residential street where kids live. But it was the wrong way. I was in my own world and he was in his and I communicated nothing to him.

The image of him bouncing up from his seat, whipping his head around stays with me, and it reminds me not to be such a goon when I think I’m in the right. That’s when I need to be most careful: when I’m sure I’m right.

The truth, as seen from the other angle

Months later there was another incident in which nothing terrible actually happened but it left a much more serious image in my head. It was a nearly identical situation except the thoughtless driver was me this time.

I was leaving a newly-built subdivision after dealing with the most unreasonable contractor I think I’ve ever dealt with. I was mad and certain that I was right to be.

I don’t think I was speeding, but I whipped around a parked van on a curve and was surprised by a little girl slowly riding her bike up the other side of the street. She was dressed in pink and her bike was pink. I didn’t come close to her but my sudden appearance startled her and she almost lost her balance.

The sight of her wobbling on her bike because of me broke my heart, and after I passed her and turned the corner I pulled over and sat there for a minute.

The image is still razor-sharp in my mind and I think of it often. It always does the same thing to me. I slow down whether I’m driving or not, and I become hyper-aware of the harm I could cause when I lose my mind like that.

There are millions of verbal lessons and aphorisms floating around in my mind, and they don’t always strike me the same way when I think of them. Words are too prone to the rhetoric of an argumentative mind like mine. Whenever I’m feeling self-righteous, I can rationalize away any words that don’t agree with me.

But images are immune to this. They seem to bypass whatever part of the brain it is that tries to start an argument. No words to fight it with, no handles to dismiss it with. The moral is right there in front of you.

In 1993 a photographer named Kevin Carter took an awful image nobody could argue with, and it won him a Pulitzer Prize. I’m sure you’ve seen it.

Less than a year later, for what sounds like a combination of reasons, he took his own life. He had expressed distress about the above image and others he had seen and captured. From his suicide note: “I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings and corpses and anger and pain … of starving or wounded children, of trigger-happy madmen, often police, of killer executioners…”

Images have a staying power in the mind that words can’t touch. There’s no way to soften them. They can burn themselves into your head, and maybe that’s the only way to have a truth that means the same thing on different days and in different moods.

I know now that beliefs, when they take the form of words, tend to mean whatever we need them to mean in the moment. Two different self-righteous internal dialogues, a few months apart, had me on both sides of what was essentially the same situation. Both times I was in the middle of telling myself I was right, until an image kicked me in the stomach and showed me what was true.

When I think of the pink girl wobbling on her bike because of me, there’s no way I can argue with it. I know exactly what it means and for the sake of everyone I hope I never forget it.

Photos by Heather Van Buren and Kevin Carter

Fabian | The Friendly Anarchist August 18, 2011 at 2:27 am

Just thinking aloud here: Isn’t the “problem” (if we want to call it one) that there are *some* images that convey this for us in a very personal sense, while many others do not?

Is the impact and the message of images universal? I suppose it’s not. Carter’s photo of course is like a hit to the stomach, but most people will just turn the page (or close the browser tab), and it’s gone. They may get touched by it for a second, but no higher “truth” is conveyed.

So while images indeed can get “burnt” onto our retinas, what we make of it is a different question, as far as I can tell. It might be a matter of consciousness, it might also just be a matter of the image relating to a personal belief, or an experience we made. This is when it really becomes a part of us.

But if that’s the case, I’d say from my own experience: There are also words and phrases that can convey something quite similar! This could be insults, or praise, or words said in despair. A quite motivating and positive variant could be “portals”, as described in Beyond Rules. There’s no internal argumentation needed, they just click. But everybody has to find their own.

David August 18, 2011 at 7:00 am

Yes it does depend on the person, and the experience the person has when they encounter the image. I don’t mean that every image means the same thing to everyone. I’m sure many people wouldn’t have thought twice about the girl on the bike. But for me it is a consistent, obvious truth that doesn’t need to be verbalized, and in fact would probably be lost if it were.

Fabian | The Friendly Anarchist August 19, 2011 at 3:57 am

Yes, I totally agree with that, David!
Btw., love your new design!

Suzanne Schiavoni August 18, 2011 at 6:35 am

I really liked this post, (sans the Kevin Carter photo). I also enjoyed reading “The Friendly Anarchist’s” comment. For me, both perspectives are true. You’ve just reminded me that we are all so very different in who we are, what we believe, and how we see things. Thanks for this morning’s food for thought.

Ali of Spinner's End August 18, 2011 at 8:20 am

I’m in the midst of a tricky personal situation right now, and this post really struck a chord with me. I definitely need to take a step back and take a breath and give myself a chance to really think about all the angles here, instead of blindly asserting my own position just because it happens to be where I’m standing. Thanks for this post, I needed a reminder.

Lindsay August 18, 2011 at 8:32 am

It’s true that images have a staying power that words can’t touch. Think about it — most of us have “memories” of our childhood that very well may not be memories at all, but rather just “remembering” a picture. Know what I mean? You see a picture of yourself blowing out the candles on your cake on your 8th birthday and you suddenly think you “remember” that when you don’t. I know that’s a little off-topic, but that’s what this made me think of.

If we all stopped to think about the impact(s) we had on others and their perspective, maybe we wouldn’t be so convinced we are right all of the time. Is there really any right or wrong? I don’t think so. Just my perspective, your perspective and everyone else’s –all as unique as we are.

Vilx- August 18, 2011 at 8:56 am

Interesting observation. This reminds me of a theory, which has become popular due to Betty Edwards highly successful book “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain”. The theory is that our left brain hemisphere processes things “serially” (one after another) and is responsible for our reasoning and language skills. Our right brain hemisphere however processes things “in parallel” (all at the same time) and is responsible for, among other things, visual processing. Of course, the actual relationship is not so simple, but that’s the general idea. There is quite a bit of scientific evidence supporting this theory (see Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brain_lateralization). Anyway, this could be the reason why pictures are immune to reasoning – they are processed by different parts of the brain. (And now back to exercising my other hemisphere)

David August 18, 2011 at 7:17 pm

That’s kind of what it feels like — a different part of the mind at work. I will check out Brain lateralization, thanks Vilx

Julie August 18, 2011 at 9:31 am

Beautiful, David! To me, this piece is a call to mindfulness. Because you are awake, you have the perception to see all of life as a teaching ground. An image has the ability to take you deeper into a truth on compassion, or peace, or love. Someone without this lens may see through the eyes of victimization, lack, limitation, etc… An image like Mr. Carter’s is so powerful, very few can stay asleep while seeing it. But, to get a Truth about life through girls on bikes and slightly speedy, skinny drivers, one has to be mindful, awake, and ready to see beyond the ego. Truth is everywhere… butterflies in the sky, leaves on trees, and everyday human ego ploys. It’s the awakened soul that sees it.

Love this piece. Love it.

David August 18, 2011 at 7:19 pm

Aw, thanks Julie

vaevictus August 18, 2011 at 5:15 pm

Ah, sweet self-righteousness: I know I make many mistakes and am imperfect, but how dare you make the same mistakes and not suffer for them!

I know exactly what you mean about disturbing images and memories we can’t escape, more than most in fact. You might want to read an old book (late 80’s anyway) by Daniel Wegner, “White Bears and Other Unwanted Thoughts”. A quick synopsis: suppression and repression don’t work and in fact are quite dangerous to mental control. Only when we accept our unwanted thoughts, invite them in and become habituated to them will they lose their power over us. We may not like them, but they won’t have such a grip on us, either mentally or emotionally.

Tobi August 18, 2011 at 10:52 pm

This almost made me want to cry… I was honking and actually following for a while someone on the road because they NEVER used their turn signal and it pissed me off monumentally. Turned out to be a couple of big dudes who looked like they could lift motorcycles, but what if there had been little kids in that car? Would they have noticed? What if it had scared them a lot?

I felt really bad and it didn’t help that my younger sister was in the car, watching all of this. Watching me take pleasure in harassing strangers in one of the most cowardly ways possible.

Miriam August 19, 2011 at 9:06 am

Please take this as a compliment from someone who has a bad habit of flippancy and not taking anything seriously, for a very sobering and thoughtful piece (though I think not being too serious about life is fine if you don’t take it too far)

I found your description of the scared and bewildered child on the bike to be quite powerful even without a picture. I think it depends on the predisposition of the reader; if you find the idea of fear in a child to be upsetting, as I do, then you’ll be more affected by an anecdote like this – and you don’t need to see it in graphic terms. That’s probably why I find the Carter image unbearable – there are so many children trapped in conflicts or famines, who must be living in terror every day of their lives. It’s something we just don’t like to imagine.

pd August 19, 2011 at 1:18 pm

I’ve noticed this happening to me too in the past, some times when I’ve gotten some sort of understanding of the world, then suddenly something happens that makes me feel a bit foolish because of how I’m reacting. I suspect that it’s because when we have this understanding our mind gets filled with it and it sort of plays out in our head for a while and then it sort of becomes an obstacle to continue to experience the world with a fresher mind… something like that. Not that you said this, but I don’t think that it would be the understanding about the world that is destructive in itself because it makes us see the world differently, but because it sort of lingers on and then seems to let us take in less about the world…

barak August 21, 2011 at 3:03 am

We always change our opinion abouth how we see the world. it happened to me zillion times and i believe its good attitude. because this way you have much more exprience as you look at things.

Happytizinglife August 21, 2011 at 10:21 am

Loved this article and I totally agree. I think in images not words this is how my brain operates. While looking at this amazingly disturbing photo you included I could not help but think of the mother in Somalia that had to choose the one from her children that seemed most likely to live and left the other dying ones because she would not be able to feed them all.
An unusual coincidence also hapoened while reading, i was looking at the photo and trying to take in the misery in it and on tv there was a program about a 100 thousand dollar Audi !! Both images could not fit together in my mind, they simply could not.

Lori August 21, 2011 at 11:06 am

All we can hope is that our experiences create understanding. Learning and remembering that we are all in this together. More alike than different.
However you are touched and changed by your experiences in this world, hopefully moves you to becomming a more understanding, empathetic and compassionate human, for yourself and others.

hannamay August 23, 2011 at 9:58 pm

Thank you for this blog post. I think it’s important for people to remember this when they are commenting. I love it!

Thomas August 25, 2011 at 1:05 pm

Ohh, I really love your article here… This is very touching. Yes, we can’t stay away from the truth. As the saying goes, the truth hurts. That is very common to people who are sometimes afraid to face the reality because it will really hurt them.

han August 30, 2011 at 1:35 pm

Wow, powerful stuff. I stumbled upon your blog. Thanks for putting this out.

alexagreen September 23, 2011 at 10:57 am

OMG!!! I was about to read the whole article and when I was about to scroll down I stopped reading and instead felt very pity feels like my heart is going to crush…. Sorry I can’t read it anymore.

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