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The other day I was at a friend’s house hanging out and catching up.  We were talking about life and death and the space in between. That morning I had visited Sister Maureen, a dear friend and mentor, who is nearing the end of her life. Sitting with my girlfriend that evening I was very aware of my feels of both deep gratitude and deep sadness.  Gratitude for Sister Maureen’s presence and influence in my life, as well as, my being able to be present with her as she begins to transition from this life. Sadness at the thought of her not being here for all of us that love, admire and depend on her light for guidance.  

As we spoke, I admired the print my friend had hanging on her wall, as I had a million times before. The print, which I now know is called The Three Ages of Woman, depicts a mother with her child resting upon her. For the first time, after years of seeing this print on her wall, I noticed a small dark hand in the bottom left corner of the painting and asked my friend about it.  Amazingly, she had never noticed the hand before either!

A quick google search revealed the print on the wall was only a small part of the original painting by Gustav Klimt. The complete work actually chronicles three stages of womanhood and the cycle of life. The dark hand I noticed belonged to an elderly woman who stands off to the side from the mother and child, a fact that both my friend and I were completely unaware of because we had simply never noticed the hand in the corner of the print. We were both flabbergasted that we had missed it for so long!  How was that possible?

Looking at the print, the mother and child are bright and surrounded by colorful flowers, which naturally draw the eyes away from the darker, shadowed area the hand is in. We just never really looked at the picture.  We allowed ourselves to only pay attention to the pretty part, missing the rest of the story, never seeing that there was a bigger picture.

Neither of us will ever look at the print on the wall the same again, our perceptions have forever been changed, as is typical when you add new and different information to what you already know.  In the past, I saw a sweet moment between mother and child. That perspective reminded me of similar experiences I had when my daughter was little. My new perspective connects me with the aging woman. The feeling is a bit heavier, who likes to think about aging after all, but is probably more in tune with the emotions the painter was aiming to evoke from the viewer.

So what does any of this really have to do with anything? Everything! There is always more information to be seen and integrated into our perceptions. I believe my focus on Sister Maureen opened my mind to new information. I wasn’t feeling all happy and flowery, so my mind allowed the hand in the shadow to reveal itself to me, but we didn’t stop there. We then asked questions and sought out more information, which then changed our view of what we saw and felt. This new reality in regard to the print can be expanded to life. The more of the picture we are willing to see, the more we can understand what is actually happening. 

This lesson could not be more relevant to the work we do as therapists. It is very easy to think we “know” a client’s needs after working with someone session after session.  We may find ourselves not noticing the shadows, not asking tough questions and, not integrating new information.  All bad habits that diminish the service we offer. There is always a bigger picture, we just have to be willing to see it.