Last week, people across the country were shocked to hear the news about the death of Kobe Bryant. It was one of those moments where people from all different stripes were united in shock and grief. He was extremely widely known—even I knew who Kobe was, and I don’t keep up with sports. There was an outpouring of mourning, people naming how he’d captured imaginations, people lifting up prayers for his family.
And then there was another reaction that came about. I started seeing it on Facebook that many people were taking the opportunity to name people who weren’t recognized by the news who had experienced tragedy. Names of people who weren’t famous but were no less tragic of losses. Now, we should never shame people for who they grieve. But the very widespread and unified grief around Kobe has shown up in other famous people as well—David Bowie, Carrie Fisher, Robin Williams, Prince, and others. Society has a way of showing who is considered important.
I saw a picture just recently of the city of Mumbai in India, and it struck me because on the right side of the image was what looked like a modern, wealthy city with skyscrapers and hi-rise apartments; and on the other side was a sea of squalid slums filled with shanties. And the only thing separating these two parts of the city was a tree-covered hill.
It reminded me of how, in seminary, the school was in the neighborhood of Eau Claire. Now, Eau Claire used to be a well-to-do kind of area, but in the last few decades has experienced a lot of economic depression, crime, and neglect. But if you got in your car and drove eight minutes, you could get to a part of town called The Vista. The Vista was the trendy part of town, with lots of shiny new shops and restaurants, a park by the river side, and expensive homes. That eight minute drive was all that separated the two.
I might be in a weird age gap here, but does anyone remember MySpace? Before Facebook, MySpace was the social media for middle and high schoolers. But among its many features, one enduring thing that it had was your friends list. And the friends list was important, very important, to the teens who used it, because your friends were ranked, and you could change that ranking any time you wanted.
Let me tell you there was a lot of drama around the MySpace friend ranking. Inexplicably being bumped down someone’s list could easily lead to anxiety about what went wrong in your friendship. Being bumped up was a source of joy and pride. It’s a little weird how much hung on something as simple as a list on a website. It was a lot like the seating arrangement Jesus spoke about in the gospel today.
In one of my classes back in seminary, the professor put on a video for us to watch. It was from a psychology experiment. There were five people in a room, and they were passing a ball back and forth. We, the class, were supposed to count how many times the ball was passed in the course of the video. So the professor turned on the video, we all watched and counted, and then when the video ended he turned off the T.V. and asked “raise your hand if you saw the man in the gorilla suit.”
Y’all, I definitely didn’t see a man in a gorilla suit in that video. But when we re-watched the clip—now that I knew he would be there—there was totally a guy in a gorilla suit that walked literally right in between the five people tossing the ball back and forth. It was totally nuts that I didn’t even see him the first time we watched it.
Turns out, this is a phenomenon that happens all the time. When we need to focus on one thing—like counting how many times a ball is passed—other things will fade into the background to the point that our brains literally erase them from our awareness. It’s why people who get into car accidents changing lanes claim they didn’t see the car—since the other car was going about the same speed, their brain perceived it as being stationary and therefore not necessary to notice.
We actually see the world differently based on what we prioritize noticing.