too much object permanence

“Reading between the lines” is a fascinating expression. We usually think of reading and literacy as a process of decoding words and interpreting them. But there are no words between the lines. There is only white space. What are we actually reading?


I sat once with a high school student reading a play excerpt and giving some interpretations of the characters, showing how the nuances of particular words conveyed what attitudes the characters were taking. The student looked at me afterward in astonishment and said, “You got all of that from this text?”

A good education forms the habit of seeing what is not obvious. What do we mean by perceptive students or critical thinkers? I think we mean people who can see past the surface of things to a reality underneath, usually one that challenges our first impressions.

Do you remember learning from child development that a baby reaches a certain stage where she is able to remember an object that is no longer in sight? “Object permanence,” they call it, which is ironic, because it is not the object that has become permanent, merely the perception. But then as adults we may struggle with too much object permanence. How many times have you wished you could stop obsessing about a past mistake, long forgotten by everyone else? In either case, whether we are missing what is there or seeing what is not, what matters is how deeply and clearly we are able to experience.

Life seems to give us an endless process of peeling back the layers of the world. I keep revising what I thought before; the old answers start to seem simplistic and the reality more subtle. Particular troubling is the idea that the process cannot possibly be over. My now most dearly held ideas may become just as outworn as the ones I have abandoned.

Reading between the lines means remembering our experiences, hearing a tone of voice in the words, feeling an emotional response, and wondering about the truth of things. Sometimes the words even get in the way of meaning. I believe we are reading ourselves.