, Salem, MA

March 18, 2014

Watson: Our past and our views can blind us

Brian T. Watson
The Salem News

---- — Oftentimes, age brings wisdom. As we get older, sometimes we become better able to bring patience and perspective to life’s situations and to people.

The older we get, the more experiences we have had, the more people we have met, the more observations we have made, and the more pain and joy we have felt. If we have been attentive and inquisitive — and maybe a little analytical — as we age, we probably have learned a great deal.

If we have valued personal growth and been diligent and unflinching about identifying our foibles, we may have developed competencies in both the intellectual and emotional realms. If we are really lucky, we have learned how to balance and blend the rational and emotional spheres and know how and when to appropriately let one modify the other, and vice versa.

That’s the theory, and sometimes it’s the practice. Oftentimes, however, it is not.

I just read a terrific novel, “My Name Is Asher Lev,” that brought home to me — once again — how difficult it can be to navigate powerful personal experiences.

The book, by Chaim Potok, was published in 1972 to wide acclaim. It is the story of a young Jewish boy, Asher Lev, born in 1943 in Brooklyn into a conservative Hasidic family. His father is especially observant and reverent toward Judaism, and the family adheres strictly to the dress, rituals, rhythms and events of Hasidic life.

From an early age, Asher shows unusual sensitivities to the Hasidic and other worlds around him. Although he is indifferent to school and studying, he is passionate about drawing. He sees the colors, textures, depths, shadings and meanings of everything around him and is captivated by sketching it all. By age 10, he has traded his pencil for oils.

Increasingly, as he moves into his teens, painting consumes him. He feels driven to paint, driven to express on the canvas his feelings about people, places, objects and events. He is gifted in skill.

But the sheltered orthodox world in which he moves is not approving of his obsession. His teachers, peers, rabbi and, most of all, his father, sternly rebuke him for straying from the serious pursuits that would prepare him to be a traditional Hasid who would serve the faith.

His father, who agonizes over Stalin’s persecution of the Jews, cannot understand his son and repeatedly tries to get him to stop painting. He tells Asher that “in such a world as we have“ painting is foolishness, harmful, a desecration and worse.

When he discovers Asher painting classical nudes and famous copies of the crucifixion to hone his skills, he rages at his son. He tells Asher that his art is evil and vile and a gift from a force that would tear down religion. He goes so far as to question whether Asher is his son.

When Asher tries to explain to his father what painting means to him — how he is compelled to paint and how honestly and completely he can express himself with his pictures — his father shouts at him that only an animal can’t help himself, whereas a man has a will. The father says every man is responsible to direct his life in sacred directions, not indulge in worthless and profane activities.

Asher despairs. He sees the pain and suffering and injustice that exist in the world, and he sees how those realities torment his father, whose life is devoted to work which would lessen them. Asher cannot make his father — a Hasid emissary — see that he does with paint what his father does with words.

Ultimately, this story is about man’s capacity for blindness and the tragedies that occur because of it. Asher’s father is a good man, dedicated to making the world a better place. But his orthodoxy is so great, his life experiences so circumscribed and constricted, that certain perspectives and possibilities are simply beyond his comprehension. Even beyond the active considering that must precede comprehension.

Like each of us, Asher’s father knows how he has lived, has observed how others have lived and has drawn conclusions about what is effective, fair, sane, risky and healthy. The danger is that those conclusions will become walls that we use to keep out other ideas and ways.

If we aren’t careful, our past and our experiences can imprison us in a place where we can’t help ourselves. It is so easy for our pasts to convince us that our personal certainties are beyond questioning, beyond re-examining. One of the hardest things to do is look with new eyes at things and circumstances that we think we already understand.

The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, who appreciated the extent to which humans can perceive only what they are open to, warned, “Every man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world.”

I won’t tell you how the book ends. But before the sad conclusion, Asher’s father accuses him of being trapped by his need to make art. In reality, it is Asher’s father who can’t help himself. He is a prisoner of his past, his experiences, his fears, his expectations and his immutable perspectives.

Brian T. Watson is a Salem News columnist. Contact him at