“If it walks and talks like a duck it must be a duck” Well, yes but there is that small matter of decoys, painted to look like the real thing. Ducks recognize them as fellow ducks, based on their familiar appearance. Unfortunately, this mistake in identification goes pretty hard on the ducks.
We recognize things by shapes and patterns that are familiar to the eye. I was reminded of this yesterday, refurbishing an old hand plane. I had the knob removed and sitting on the side as part of the cleanup. Meanwhile I noted all the squirrels around me darting about, busy gathering nuts for the fall. They scurried past me like I was not even there.
In between trips in and out of the house, I noticed the shiny brown knob, about the size of a chestnut, had gone missing. I could only conclude after an unsuccessful search that some eager squirrel had mistaken it for a nut. That plane knob is likely high in a squirrel nest alongside a stash of acorns. Its shape and size had betrayed it.
Identifying familiar shapes and patterns, is also how facial recognition software works. The software looks at your face as an ensemble of parts like a puzzle. Put together there is what adds up to you, and there are other patterns and shapes that add up to someone else.
Solving this does not require complicated software. Babies know. The first thing a baby comes to recognize is its mother’s face. This is profoundly important to an infant’s healthy development. It’s that matter of personhood. A baby is a small person, and the mother is a person. They must recognize each other. It’s a matter of basic survival. A child will cleave to its mother, and a mother will nurture a child. It’s how nature is built.
There is about an hour after birth that is called “quiet alert”. I know this time period well because I spend it with my first daughter in the wee hours of the morning after my wife gave birth and was sleeping off the anesthesia. I held my child and looked into her eyes and she looked back. There are no words that can describe this basic passage.
Quiet alert has one task. To find a face that gazes back at you. It’s mutual recognition. A baby finds its mother, and in that one small task initiates a long path of relationship that will extend through a lifetime and beyond. Recognition echoes into time and space and transforms life. It’s the kind of knowing that sticks, and has meaning.
This basic thread of life can also fail, and when it does, the results are catastrophic. A baby who does NOT find its mother in those first few pivotal hours, will very soon fall into distress. A developmental psychologist named Edward Tronick did an experiment, called “still face” where he instructed caregivers to avoid any kind of facial expression in response to their charge. They were literally to pay no attention whatsoever to their infant. They were to feign indifference.
The results were tragic, and the response was immediate. The children who were ignored, soon collapsed into open distress from this contrived deprivation. The psychologist concluded that children deprived for months and even years of this necessary care and attention, would go out into the world as severely damaged human beings. We desperately need to be seen and known as a basic tenet for survival.
There is good news in the Bible in this regard. David plumbed this mystery in Psalm 139.
“When I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.”
That’s right. We are known of God. Jesus himself proclaimed, “Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered.” (Luke 12:7)
Being a disciple can be a winding journey, but at its heart is a yearning that cannot be denied. God seems to know us, and we crave to know Him back. Where this comes from, or why, we cannot tell. It’s what Pascall described as the God-shaped hole in the middle of every human being.
In life there are good and bad mysteries. Where socks go in the dryer for example, is one of the bad mysteries. But knowing and being known by our Creator, that’s one of the good ones.