The other day I found a speck in my eye. I wasn’t sure where it came from, but it was a red speck, the kind you get from reading too much or squinting at the opera. I haven’t been to the opera in a while, so I ruled that out. I read a lot, so I thought it must be from that. Then again, I also stayed up late watching a YouTube video about the secret life of Hitler’s driver, so it could have been from that.
I discovered the speck in my right eye in the morning and then forgot about it, going about my business for the rest of the day. When I got to the office, however, an admin brought it to my attention. She thought maybe I hadn’t seen it. I told her I had. She waited for an explanation. I didn’t have one. A second admin did the same thing, then the UPS delivery guy, and, finally, a student.
I dashed to the Men’s Room, but nothing had changed. It hadn’t spread, turned black, or blinded me. It wasn’t exactly something to turn away from in horror. I didn’t understand the concern. Did they think it was pink eye, a highly contagious bacterial infection? But my eyeball did not look infected, nor did I feel that grinding, sandpaper pressure from conjunctivitis. I felt normal except for the red speck.
I didn’t see myself differently, but apparently other people did.
As they say at the kennel, this gave me pause. How other people saw me differed from the way I saw me. Nothing new there, but it surprised me that something as simple as a red dot sitting off the iris the way the moon sits off the Earth could change people’s perspective of me. And we’re not even talking to scale; that is, the red dot off my iris was smaller proportionally than the moon is to the Earth. Still, it was either different or unexpected enough for people to notice.
I have written before about how zebras hide from predators not by blending into the environment but by blending into each other. To a hunting lion, a herd of zebras must look like a confusing whir of stripes and dust. But if any of the zebras has a defect, even a small one like a limp or discoloration, the lion can focus on that lone zebra and pounce for the attack. The lesson for zebras and the rest of us is not to stand out, at least not on the plains of the Serengeti. Or a subway platform.
Matthew’s Gospel takes this a step further and admonishes us not just to overlook the speck in our neighbor’s eye but not to judge it. “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” (Mt 7.3). I can just imagine what would have happened had I shown up at the office with a plank in my eye instead of a speck.
Strangely, as much as we rely on sight to make judgments about ourselves and the world around us, sight can obstruct insight. In John’s Gospel, for instance, Jesus exhorts an angry crowd that he believes is about to kill him to “Stop judging by appearances, but judge justly” (Jn 7.24), by which he means with the eyes of God rather than the mob.
Why is this important? Because today is the Feast of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit blew through the Upper Room “like a strong driving wind” and rested upon the disciples in “tongues as of fire” (Acts 2.2-3). Just before this, the resurrected Jesus appeared to the disciples in the same room so that Thomas, who insisted on seeing Jesus with his own eyes, could believe in the messiah (Jn 20.24-28). But then Jesus told him, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (Jn 20.29b).
We cannot, then, believe everything we see. Nor can we believe everything others see. My red speck is proof of this. I don’t know what other people saw that day. Who knows? Maybe they thought they were helping. But wouldn’t it be better to heed Jesus’ advice and learn to judge justly?
Or maybe not at all?