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Seeing through your eyes | Commentary from Dr. Amy Novak

By: Dr. Amy Novak, president, Dakota Wesleyan University

President Amy Novak

President Amy Novak, photo courtesy of DWU.

Nearly twenty years ago while living with my family in Ottawa, Canada, I had the opportunity to work with new immigrants to that nation from around the world. Many had been broken by war and scarred by poverty and violence. Many had lost children and other family members; many had suffered personal injuries and abuse. Others had witnessed their homes and villages burned. These stories helped to explain their decisions to flee their countries, but they regularly shook me to my core. Our church community was actively involved in welcoming these new immigrants, securing them housing, offering basic language instruction, introducing the medical system, and a host of other necessary issues.

One story from this experience inspires my work as we enter 2021.

A young father named Amir sat across a table from me sharing his hopes and dreams for his family. War had been a constant in Amir’s life. I asked if he was angry or filled with hatred toward those who burned his village, abused his daughters, and forced him to flee. “No,” he said. “I no longer have the energy to be angry. But, if I can give my children one gift, I want them to learn to see through someone else’s eyes.”

As we begin a new year, we need to recognize that no president or congressional delegation can truly solve our most vexing problems. Regardless of the challenge, it will take a community, one comprised of individuals who are willing to undertake the challenging work of seeing the world through other’s eyes.

If we think that a vaccine is the panacea, the cure-all to a global pandemic, we close our eyes. If we think that a stimulus check will cover the cost of loneliness, we close our eyes. If we think flipping the calendar page will result in some magical transformation, we close our eyes. More than ever, in 2021 we need a community of awareness.

Community begins with me and my willingness to see beyond my own issues and challenges. So yes, I’ve got my own problems, but when I am called to community awareness, I have to muster the courage to ask, “How might I learn to understand the wounds, the loss, the struggles facing my family member, my neighbor, my co-worker, or the stranger?” The path to this understanding is neither simple nor easy. It demands listening, thoughtful questioning, a willingness to question my own assumptions and beliefs, and a willingness to learn.

In the past year we have regularly heard the phrase “common good” in everyday speech, from wearing masks to stem to spread of COVID-19, to the need for police reform. We have refrained from attending events that we find great joy in attending. We have stayed away from loved ones because others may be put at risk. Whatever our individual motivations, these actions have benefited the common good.

Amir’s wish for his children calls us to a deeper understanding of the common good, however, one that involves not only the welfare of our fellow citizens but that challenges us to see the world through their eyes. It invites us to move beyond a focus on “me” and toward a focus on “we.” It challenges us to listen openly to new perspectives, ones we might not otherwise have considered. It challenges us to examine our own beliefs. It challenges us to assess our investment in those things that may not benefit the wounded, the marginalized, those suffering losses and, indeed, may in fact, contribute to their marginalization. It challenges us to be the healing words, the healing touch, the healing ear, the healing eyes to a wounded world.

My hope for the coming year is that our understanding of the common good can grow stronger and deeper, that we can find the courage to take the difficult steps of learning to see the world through the eyes of others very different from us. For it is only when we do this that we will truly become prepared to address the vexing challenges that confront us, both nationally and locally. May we begin 2021 with a desire to become Amir’s gift to his children: to build our community by first trying to see through someone else’s eyes.

Re-published with permission form Dr. Amy Novak. Seeing Through Your Eyes was published in the Mitchell  Daily Republic on January 6, 2021, here.


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