Seeing Real People

Topics: Book Reviews
Published: October 05, 2012

“Dr P.” had a vision problem. He could see 20/20, but somehow he lost his ability to read music—a significant problem for a music teacher. It gets worse. He also stopped being able to recognize people, at least when he could not hear their voices or see distinctive facial features. Abstracts weren’t a problem—he identified squares, circles, even a dodecahedron. He could see. But there he was trying to have conversations with fire hydrants, and genuinely mistaking his wife for a hat.

“Classical, schematic neurology,” writes Dr. Oliver Sacks, sees a “lack of visual information or faulty processing” as the way to understand Dr P.’s condition. The visual parts of Dr P.’s brain were degenerating, certainly. Yet there was more to see in Dr P. “Our mental processes,” Sacks concedes, “are not just abstract and mechanical, but personal, as well.”

Dr. P was Sacks’s only case of “agnosia” in his career. Yet he looks back at the man’s partial vision as a sad analogy of the “partial vision” of many in his field of neuropsychology:

“Our cognitive sciences are themselves suffering from an agnosia essentially similar to Dr P.’s. Dr P. may therefore serve as a warning and parable—of what happens to a science which eschews the judgmental, the particular, the personal, and becomes entirely abstract and computational.”[1]

Biblical counselors are more pastoral ministers than cognitive scientists, but I wonder if we are any less vulnerable to being merely abstract and computational. We can still have a posture of testing, diagnosing, and treating, instead of the alternative: understanding, communicating with, and helping.

Each counseling hour I face those two options. I can see textbook anger, pornography use, and marital conflict, or I can see a whole person. I can compute what I see into a system, and then automatically assign what worked for one person to ministry with another, as though people will necessarily receive it in the same way. Or in contrast, I can genuinely believe that each new person and situation will have particulars that I can’t just intuit.

Choosing that second option makes all the difference in the world. I know I’m vulnerable to seeing problems only and not the whole person. That awareness makes me want to never stop trying to grow in my ability to listen and understand. Humility puts listening first. And second, knowing I am vulnerable to being cookie-cutter in one-on-one ministry, I will never stop trying to grow as a wise communicator—speaking to the individual, and not merely to the general struggle. 

This kind of love aims to be like God in how he loves. The Father loves his children with an admirable patience and wisdom. He invites us to speak in the details and particulars: “in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” And he truly cares to listen: “Cast all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.” God sees both the detail and the person he loves, not just faces in the crowd, and not just our problems. Having eyes to see and ears to hear the Father, in all his love and patience, will give us eyes to see and ears to hear real people, in all their hurts and struggles, sins and cares.

[1]  Oliver Sacks, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales (New York: Harper & Row, 1985).


Michael Gembola is a counselor at CCEF.