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What Did You See?

Jim Mahoney
November 15, 2021

Years ago, I attended an annual breakfast to honor the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. On this occasion the organizers had invited a former civil rights colleague of MLK to speak. He had been a young man marching with King and other civil rights protestors in the turbulent 1960’s. Now, as a senior citizen, he recalled in his speech various actions he witnessed watching different civil rights icons during that time in American History. I remember the speech even now —less for the content and more for the impactful way he delivered it.

He used a sort of call and response maneuver with the audience in which he would pose a question or proposition but, in this case, would answer it himself. As he began recounting the actions of leaders in the marches, he would say about a particular leader familiar to the audience, “You didn’t know I was watching.” He would hesitate so we might ponder what he would say next of the person. Then he would reveal a simple but profound action he witnessed from the leader. It was incredibly powerful, as he witnessed leaders we knew turning the other cheek to violence, restraining themselves when provoked, or in another case reaching down to help someone pick up dropped items who had just seconds before been shouting epithets at the person.

How might you answer the prompt, “You didn’t know I was watching “? When you saw someone do something that others might not see or ever know about. Perhaps a simple act of kindness. Or protection. Maybe just love. But it might be indifference. What in that moment do you see of someone that stayed with you? Today, some of those leaders would undoubtedly be filmed on a phone, a narrative supplied, and judgement rendered. I’m thinking though of everyday people and the things you may have seen that grabbed you for the moment, remained frozen in your brain, and later offered a lesson. What were some of those vignettes you witnessed when the person being observed didn’t know you were watching?

Why did you place that event, as one friend calls it, in your museum of memories? I just know, especially for children, those unscripted moments in which we watch others are sometimes, given time, powerful lessons. Here are a few shared by others with me:

(1) When someone overheard their boss telling someone why they wanted a younger colleague to take his seat to attend a limited recognition event at the White House because he had done so much work. How many bosses would pass up a once in a lifetime opportunity like that?

(2) Another person shared they had watched the President of a University stop to pick up several small pieces of trash on a campus quad and then for good measure, pull a couple weeds from a flower bed.

(3) When a friend watched a complete stranger give up his flight to another person to make it to an event on time.

Someone once said, “character is what you would do in the dark when no one could see you. “ It’s in those small moments that we see and often learn big lessons. Sometimes totally unexpected. Rarely famous. Unrecorded. What did you see when no one was watching? That we can learn from, be inspired by, or simply relate to the moment.