Trying on different-colored lenses

I heard the analogy of lenses decades ago, just before embarking on an exchange program to Japan. It isn’t perfect, but I’ve never forgotten it. And now seems like a good time to share it.

Here goes:

Each of us wears lenses that are colored by our culture and our experiences. The speaker I heard at that orientation suggested that all one hundred of us American exchange students wore yellow lenses, because we had grown up in the United States.

Of course our individual experiences differed, but culturally, broadly speaking, we shared many understandings and assumptions.

S/he told us that when we arrived in Japan, we would be surrounded by people who wore blue lenses.

“What happens when people wearing different-colored lenses look at the same thing?” s/he asked. “They see it differently.”

The speaker gave various examples of how we could expect to feel out of sync with our Japanese hosts: from the concrete parts of culture, like food preferences and clothing, to less tangible aspects, like personal space, speaking volumes and use of eye contact.

The key thing to remember, we were told, was that these differences did not mean they or we were wrong in our expectations or habits. They were simply the product of seeing the world through different lenses.

The analogy isn’t perfect. That roomful of American teenagers represented different regions, races, religions, family structures and value systems. But what was true is we all knew how to function in our home country and mostly what to expect.

Today, American society is so very torn, and my heart breaks at how unfriendly, dangerous and unfair it can be.

If that speaker gave the lens talk today, I wonder how s/he would describe our lenses. Would s/he still say they are yellow? Or would s/he acknowledge the many different colors we wear?

And if our lenses are different colors, our experiences so divergent, is it possible to find a similar perspective and come together as a nation?

Here is another thing I remember hearing from that talk—and experiencing when I later spent a couple of years in Japan: Yellow-lens-wearing people can probably never evolve to see the world through blue lenses. But with time and effort, we might get to a shade of green, maybe even greenish-blue.

At the time, hearing that troubled me. I wanted to believe I could truly walk in someone else’s shoes and see the world through their eyes. But today the limitation seems almost encouraging.

Why? Because we do not need to expect ourselves or others to understand one another perfectly.

But we must try.

After all, it does not take very many drops of blue to start turning yellow … green.

Maybe we can live with green.

Where to begin? Listen. We can listen to people we know whose perspectives are different from ours. We can listen by reading books and articles written by people from various groups.

We can greet our neighbors, opening the door to conversation. We can volunteer with an organization run by or working with people we don’t usually have the opportunity to meet.

There are many lists of ways to listen and help circulating on social media. If we each picked one thing and took a step forward, imagine the progress we could make. In the paraphrased words of the peace prayer:

This is a time when many of us must change our focus—from seeking to be understood to working harder to understand.

Photo by Sergey Chuprin on Unsplash


I wrote about how two years in Japan changed my life in my memoir, The Same Moon.

One thought on “Trying on different-colored lenses

  1. This is so true! Somehow it seems that we have more in common with folks in other countries than with those in our own country. That seems more difficult now.


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