The Gift of Gestalt?
I first learned about this funny German word “gestalt” in a college video production course. “Gestalt,” meaning “shape” or “form,” refers to the ways in which individual parts come together to make an original whole. Filmmakers use the principles of gestalt to design visuals that tell the story they hope to convey. For example, the gestalt principle of proximity suggests that subjects grouped together belong together and must represent a unified front. In a scene where a man, a woman, and a child are having an argument, for instance, if the man and woman are standing side by side and the child stands across from them, our brains are wired to assume that the adults must be one the same “team” and the child is the “opposing” team. Another principle of gestalt called “continuity” suggests that our brains tend to take in information like puzzle pieces, believing all pieces must belong to one grand picture instead of seeing them as unrelated pieces belonging to different pictures. It’s because of this principle that we can leisurely watch and follow televised sports. Think of a baseball game on TV. If you see a batter make a big hit and then the camera switches to a shot of a baseball rolling in grass, your brain automatically believes that the baseball hit by the batter and the baseball resting in the outfield are, indeed, the same ball, both part of the same play.
Gestalt really is a gift to filmmakers, because, without understanding and embracing these psychological tricks, it’d be impossible to create a cohesive motion picture that tells a meaningful story. However, gestalt isn’t always so helpful in our daily lives when it comes to processing our continuous intake of images and information. More often than we’d wish or care to admit, gestalt leads us astray by causing us to make blanket, stereotypical assumptions that, in reality, are much more complex than what meets the eye. I can’t tell you how many times, for example, that I’ve encountered someone approximately my age without a job, and, instead of questioning what might be going on under the surface (Family challenges? Mental health concerns? Lack of transportation? Limited opportunities to find work with benefits and a livable wage?) my brain automatically sums up the parts I can see on the surface and concludes “young age” + “able body” – “employment” = “lazy person.” Vice-versa, I notice repeatedly how some adults, when they come across an elderly person, may quickly write that senior off as “old-fashioned” or “weak” or “one-dimensional” without ever having a conversation or spending meaningful time with them. It’s these sorts of subconscious, automatic assumptions that can stunt our capacities for compassion and wisdom, preventing us from truly seeing and getting to know one another.
So it seems fair to say then that, while gestalt may be a pretty cool gift and creative tool for filmmakers and visual artists of all kinds, it can be more of a hinderance than a help when it comes to living in thoughtful, open-minded, and grace-filled ways. Fortunately, we have a God who is not limited by gestalt-ridden assumptions. Where we might see a lowly shepherd boy, God sees a noble king. Where we might see a simple fisherman, God sees a charismatic disciple. Where we might see a staunch religious persecutor, God sees one of the most effective evangelists to ever walk the earth.
Understanding the assumptions we’re wired to make is essential to living with self-awareness, just as working continuously to question and challenge our default viewpoints is critical to practicing grace in our relationships. But, trusting that God sees us as more than the sum of our perhaps less-than-glamorous parts is vital to living into our identities and callings as beloved children of God.