On Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Insight

The wisdom of shared stories

When We Can’t See What’s Right in Front of Us

Sometimes our eyes keep from us the things our heart doesn’t want to see

“Is Oedipus Rex a true story?” my older daughter Saige1, just shy of ten, asked me. Having me as her mother she probably learned about the Greek tragedy Oedipus the King by Sophocles before she learned to tie her shoelaces.

“Stories like Oedipus Rex are myths, Saige. They’re stories that are passed down from one generation to the next. What’s important about them isn’t whether or not they’re true, what’s important about them is what they mean, what they teach us about who we are, and how to live.”

“Like Oedipus couldn’t see what was right in front of him, right Mom?” my younger daughter Anika had chimed in. “He taught us to go to the eye doctor. If he couldn’t see Mom why didn’t he just get glasses?” she questioned as she tapped on hers.

“Glasses probably wouldn’t have helped Oedipus,” I said smiling, but trying not to laugh. “That’s the kind of seeing you have to do with your heart, not with your eyes.”

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“I never saw it,” my patient Jessica said to me. “I’m a therapist and I couldn’t see how broken my marriage was until I found him with my step-sister.”

“Sometimes our eyes keep from us the things our heart doesn’t want to see,” I suggested thinking of her, but also of myself.

“That night when I walked in on them I felt like a veil was ripped from my eyes. I finally saw what I had kept from myself, even though it was hidden in plain sight.” Sighing and rubbing her forehead she continued, “All the signs were there. He would come home late. Kept his phone close to him and deleted all his text messages. I saw a charge on his credit card recently for Tiffany’s, but I thought he was planning to surprise me. How could I not have seen what was always in front of me?”

“You’re not alone, Jessica. In fact, some thousands of years ago in ancient Greece the same idea was being considered in the play Oedipus the King2. In the opening scene, Oedipus stands in front of his countrymen vowing to bring to justice the man who had murdered the king. “Where are the murderers?” he pleads with grave sincerity. “Where would a trace of this crime be found? It would be hard to guess where,” he proclaims, not knowing he himself was responsible for the murder and to find “them” he only needed to look as far as the mirror in front of him. Ironically, it is the blind prophet who is able to see, and tells Oedipus what he has been blind to, that he is responsible for murdering his father and has unknowingly been sleeping with his mother.”

“I guess I’m not alone in blundering through my relationship.”

“Far from it. In fact, Oedipus pretty much gets every relationship in his life wrong. Like who is wife is, who is father is, who is mother is, and who he is. And it’s only when he blinds himself by burning his eyes that he begins to see. The play suggests what guides us through life, through our relationships isn’t sight, but insight, and how difficult it is to see what we are doing as we are doing it.”

The year after I had graduated from college my roommate had called my parents to tell them she thought I had an eating disorder. I didn’t know myself then that that’s what I had. I was Oedipus, who knew he had murdered a man, but hadn’t realized the man he had murdered and the murdered king was the same person. I knew what the symptoms of bulimia were, and that I had them, I just didn’t put together that meant I had bulimia. My roommate and I didn’t speak for years. I had mistaken her concern for meddling.

“It was a difficult decision to keep working on my marriage, rather than end it,” Jessica said to me recently. “I remembered your words as I thought about what I wanted to do: ‘It takes two hands to make a clapping sound.’ What was my hand in it? I have a lot on my plate and I haven’t made much room for him on it. I’m not sure if we’re going to make it, but we have kids, and I owe it to them, to myself, to fight for this.”

As she walked out of my office that day she added, “I wanted to share an experience with you that I had when I left my house today. I noticed everything was the same. My husband was the same. The flowers growing in my yard were the same. The traffic was the same. But I saw them completely differently. I saw everything differently because what you have given me is new eyes.”

“Mom,” Anika said patting my shoulder with one hand and pointing to the family room with the other, “Saige can’t see that I can’t see past her big head.” Saige had pulled her chair close to the television, and was sitting less than a foot away from it. “That’s very Oedipus Rex of her, isn’t it Mom?”

“Right,” I said laughing with her this time, “maybe there’s a little bit of Oedipus in all of us.”

1 I’ve changed my daughters’ names for their privacy.
2 Oedipus was born to the King and Queen of Thebes, at which time it was prophesized, that he would kill his father, and marry his mother. Troubled by what they hear the King and Queen send Oedipus away to be killed, but unknown to them he is adopted instead by a family some distance from Thebes. As an adult Oedipus learns of the prophecy, believing his adoptive parents to be his biological parents, to protect them from himself he leaves, and travels a great distance. In doing so, he comes across a man who he finds to be threatening and kills him in self-defense, the man is his biological father, and inadvertently he winds up marrying his mother.

Dana S. Iyer, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Laguna Hills, California.

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