Some time ago, someone on Facebook shared a story about an x-ray of lungs that was shown to radiologists, who are trained to look for cancer nodules, which apparently show up as white spots. What few noticed was a gorilla "hiding" in the x-ray. It seems that when we are looking for one thing, we often overlook or miss even the most egregiously out of place things.
This fun little exercise took a sobering turn for me a couple of weeks ago. I was having lunch with a friend who told me the sad story of someone who had been waiting for an organ transplant. After months and months of waiting, they got a match. When the opened the patient up for the transplant, however, they discovered the patient was riddled throughout with stage 4 cancer mets. They didn't bother with the transplant. They closed the patient up and sent her home to die.
"How can they have been monitoring her health so closely for so long and not know she had cancer?" my friend asked.
I immediately thought of the gorilla in the lung x-ray and said, "They weren't looking for it." I hadn't thought about the dire consequences of not noticing the gorilla until then.
We don't see what we're not looking for.
I've written a bit about my own recent health issues and subsequent surgery. People have asked me what were my symptoms that they found this cyst on m pancreas.
I say, "It was an accident. We weren't looking for this."
What happened was this: I was doing my annual round of scans and such with my cardiologist. This year he did an echocardiogram (last year was the nuclear stress test---I suppose later this year, it'll be that again). He was content with with what he saw and asked if I had any other concerns. I mentioned some very vague, subtle symptoms, but I admitted I didn't think they were heart related, more likely gastrointestinal. He decided that, due to some minor thing on my echocardiogram, we should do a CT of the heart, just to make sure there wasn't anything more dire.
A few days after the CT scan, he called me in to give me the results. He said the heart all checked out just fine, no worries there. "That's the good news," he said. Then he told me one of the technicians, who run the machinery of the CT scan, noticed the mass on my pancreas and brought it to the attention of someone or another (a supervisor or doctor or somesuch) who said, yes, that does look unusual. They told my cardiologist, who told my primary care physician, who set up the dominoes that tumbled into my surgery.
I realize, now, how easily I might still have a cyst on my pancreas. Maybe my cardiologist---or someone else along the way---might have noticed the mass. Or he might have focused so much on my heart that he wouldn't have noticed. Who can say? What I know is that a technician, who saw CT scans all day everyday, noticed something going on where he wasn't focusing the machinery.
My amazement at my good fortune in all this grows.
This past Sunday, the lectionary brought us the story of the Roman centurion with a sick slave (Luke 7:1-10). This Roman had heard of Jesus and his healing ways and sent, first, Jewish leaders to Jesus, to advocate on his behalf that Jesus should come and heal the slave. Convinced to do so, Jesus heads towards the centurion's home and is then met by friends of the centurion, who tell Jesus that he needn't come all the way to the home, that the centurion was certain of Jesus' authority to heal from afar.
"When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him . . . "
In her sermon, the rector of the church where I'm attending, the Rev. Lisa Hunt, likened the centurion to a modern day member of the Taliban. She suggested that this was someone who was part of the bad guys, the occupiers of Israel, and so it would be like an American being asked a favor by a high-ranking Taliban official---albeit with the endorsement of some American leaders. "Yeah, he's Taliban, but he's a good Taliban."
Rev. Hunt pointed out that we have no word on what became of the centurion and slave afterward. We have no indication that he became a disciple of Jesus. It seems likely that he continued on as pagan in a pagan army. Still, Jesus found some sort of faith in this fellow and was amazed.
Jesus found something he wasn't looking for.
I remember reading somewhere that on a quiet afternoon, just standing on (or in!) a corner, we are bombarded by so much information (even without electronic devices!) that so much of the work of our five senses is to weed out what not to pay attention to. If we were to take in all the information that is coming at us, we'd overload. We are hardwired to ignore things we aren't looking for.
This Sunday's sermon, my personal experience, my friend's
story, and gorillas hiding in x-rays have been on my mind the last 48
hours now. How do we short circuit our hard-wiring so that we see what we aren't looking for?
I'm not sure. Maybe it's paying just a little more attention. Maybe it's the work of the Holy Spirit. Maybe it's a prayer we pray, asking for amazement, asking the Spirit to draw our attention to the life-giving thing we aren't looking for.