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​A free gaze

· An educational question ·

The sense of sight makes me immediately think of the mischievous eyes of children in crèches and nursery schools who dart about and observe far more than adults can perceive or imagine. For what do we wish to train these children’s way of seeing in the experiences we propose to them? My work becomes that of helping educators and teachers to look at and think about the configuration of the daily educational spaces: the dimensions of angles, objects, forms, colours, orientations and lines, surfaces and plays of light. And then to make them reflect on the ways of looking that we teach boys and girls, for example on educational outings. It is a question of not limiting ourselves to focusing attention on relational or communicative aspects but rather of showing possible ways of looking in the search for forms that intertwine, for the juxtaposition of colours, for alternating natural and man-made elements, for diversity among natural elements.... It is the observation and contemplation of beauty and of differences. In places of education the main task must be to broaden and intensify ways of looking and of inhabiting life, in the widest sense.

Margaret Keane, “Abundant Joy” (2013)

However, the more we grow, the more our way of looking, and with it our gaze on the world, are conditioned by our experiences. Education can then open up questions on the processes by which looking can be trained. Let us move to the fundamentals of our daily life: a specific job, journeys on foot or by various means of transport, reading, habits, the usual panoramas, the people we meet and the conversations in which we are most immersed – all of these train us continuously in precise ways of seeing and thinking. They also train us in a certain aesthetic sense and in the gusto, or lack of it, for life.

What types of experience of looking are we accustomed to? These days, is there a balance between the experiences of looking from close-up and looking from a distance? Of looking down and looking up? Of looking in depth? The movements of looking are never purely mechanical. They have repercussions on our way of being in the world.

Then the situations we experience teach us to focus on certain precise aspects of reality, of ourselves and of what we come across. Where does our attention tend to pause when we look and what aspects are left on the periphery?

On the occasion of certain training sessions with teachers, I tried to reflect together with them on the ever more widespread and invasive use of cell phones. The intention was not to demonize their use, which would moreover be unfair, given that positive aspects and creative uses are not lacking. Yet the continuous use of the cell phone represents a continuously looking from close up, looking down, with the tendency to exclude from one’s sight people who are near one (even if this is only the person one is sitting next to on a bus or a train). The cell phone tends to break the habit of direct observation, of pausing on things with attention, and sometimes of the contemplation of people and scenery. Its prolonged use often has in addition the power of absorbing other sensibilities. I am thinking of the difficulty in staying to listen to all the sounds and noises of the soundscape around us. This example prompts us to ask ourselves: to what extent, in our knowledge of the world and of people, do we succeed in involving our senses in dialogue, without giving priority to or absolutizing the sense of sight (which is also in such demand by the media), in order to have a more comprehensive and complex vision of the human being? “Listening brings the gaze to things”, Tullia Gianoncelli, an anthropologist, says succinctly. How much time have I myself spent listening to so many boys and girls. The possibility of making ourselves close to situations and people lies precisely in looking, in a capacity for attentively observing details, expressions and gestures, but always relating them to the accounts, words and meanings of the protagonists of the stories, with no presumption to dominate the meanings of others and with the capacity for listening to others.

In our world, so full of weapons of mass destruction, what sentiments and emotions does what we see in our daily lives make us feel most frequently? What sentiments and emotions does it teach us most forcefully? What does what we see tend to evoke, or make us remember of our life stories or experiences? Relating what we see with the emotions elicited enables us not merely to let life pass but also to savour it, to freeze what we feel in time.

Finally there is something else which predominantly shapes our way of looking: our referential knowledge. This is family knowledge which stems from experiences, and then there is also disciplinary knowledge, that is, the theories in which we believe most assiduously. These forms of knowledge govern what we “must” see, what we “must” give priority to and also what we “can” leave in the background or not see. To make what I mean more comprehensible, I would like to relate an event that happened during my work in a school. A little while ago I received some teachers, indeed among the most sensitive ones, who were concerned because a boy was continuing to fall asleep in class, and also because of the fact that – although his marks were good – this must stem from a problem, probably neurological or psychological, of a certain gravity. With the headmistress’s consent, I immediately summoned the boy, who was moreover unusual and likeable, and asked him simply why he was so tired at school. And he just as simply explained that he had a great sports dream and that in that period he had been training particularly hard to succeed in making it come true. It had not occurred to the teachers to ask him why he was so tired!

No one can cast doubt on the value of so many studies. Yet in my work I find myself ever more frequently having to connect the humanity of the individual teachers with the humanity of the pupils. I am not afraid to admit that often when I listen to so many boys and girls and also to so many little children of both sexes, I have let myself be guided not so much by theories as by these words of Br Roger of Taizé: “It is essential to seek in order to understand the whole of a person, by a few words or some attitude, rather than by long explanations. It is not enough to share what does violence in the intimate depths of a person. It is necessary to seek God’s specific gift within this person, the pivot of his or her whole life. Once this gift, or these gifts, are brought into the full light, paths unfold”. Starting with gifts we go on to attitudes, passions, and talents, even helping where there is a difficulty. We open up the gaze instead of closing it, thereby opening hope.

When we realize that our way of seeing is crystallizing or tends always to stop on the same things, when we always repeat the same words to describe situations and do not manage to extricate ourselves from the usual patterns there is no better antidote than reading or studying the Gospel, but asking of it extremely concrete questions. Education helps us to watch out for the structures that condition or determine experience, but the Gospel does not leave us any escape from not losing sight of the roots of our humanity, and from the centre of gravity that we should bear in mind in every human action: a true relationship with ourselves and with the world. We find written in the Gospel: “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? [...] first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye”. We should ask ourselves whether this log is not (as it is sometimes interpreted) a greater evil which we have committed to the other, but rather all that prevents us from seeing others in their entirety, in their entire humanity: the insensitivity of vision which we gradually acquire; our fears; prejudices regarding what is right and what is wrong; various ideas about others that we seek to confirm rather than to explode; and even knowledge in the “light” of which we are ready to think we have understood the other person….A log, in brief, which is never removed once and for all, which changes shape according to life’s moments and thus requires continuously renewed vigilance. But the good news is that every log, at the moment when we pay attention to it, can be removed. And we are always granted to be able to look at the world, at others and at ourselves, with greater freedom.

Rossana Brambilla




St. Peter’s Square

Oct. 22, 2019