I remember it clearly. It was 1991 and a new friend said: “Hey, a few of us are going to the late night film, d’you want to come?” It was The Silence of the Lambs.
“Ok, yeah, why not?” I replied, not really having the faintest idea of what I was about to watch. I thought it was just some thriller, with a few scary bits. No smartphone to check the details back then.
I should have known better. It had an 18 certificate, and somehow I’d managed to arrive at uni having never seen an 18 before. I was curious, and thought it was about time that I did.
Psychological thrillers can be gripping; there were two great actors and a brilliant plot. But then it got to the gory or shocking bits. I kept my eyes open, unwilling to give in to fear.
But when I went to bed in my halls of residence that night, the images I’d seen on the big screen revolved around my mind, searing fear into my psyche and defying sleep. Why did I say yes to seeing that film?*
After much restlessness, I began praying for God to take the images away and give me peace. My prayer was answered, and to this day I’d be unable to recount to you the creepy parts of the movie, because they’ve simply been wiped from my memory. I can vaguely recall the basic plot, but that’s about it.
Unlike text, which we can skim over, images seem to take up a higher quota of memory space in our brains – much like they take up more disc space on our phones and computers. It’s said that ‘the eyes are the window to the soul’. And yet, so often we don’t take steps to protect our souls from the damage inflicted via our eyes.
Certainly, some things we see may have been forced on us – such as domestic abuse, fights or accidents. I’m not referring to those experiences; I’m talking more about what we choose to set our eyes upon.
You can’t just ‘unsee’ things, but the internet continually offers an endless array of images that are high in shock value, demanding to be seen. And we are curious creatures.
Like that Passenger song from a while back, it seems that when we set our eyes on something gross or evil, a little light goes out in us. We concede to the darkness and our souls suffer damage, often depleting joy. Is it any wonder that cute kittens regularly dominate the internet – as if to combat all the vileness that saturates, as if to offset all that is ugly and wrong?
I wish I hadn’t ever seen anything pornographic. Either inadvertently – thanks Twitter – or purposefully, to stay culturally informed – I used to be a PSHE teacher and a sex and relationships educator for Evaluate – or out of curiosity. I wish I hadn’t seen the close-up aftermath of terrorism pictures plastered over my timeline; I wish I never clicked on certain links to be confronted by images that assaulted my eyes and infiltrated my soul.
But I did. And there is grace for mistakes and foolishness. But not everything instantly disappears from one’s mind – even after prayer. And so I have been learning to treasure the gift of sight and to moderate what I allow through my windows to the soul. I won’t click on an ISIS beheading link, or visit that Californian dermatologist’s pus-popping site. (Er, yup there is such a thing). I won’t give up memory space to extreme horror or twist the beauty of sex into a contorted, cheap or violent image.
To combat the widespread evil, I’m reminded to focus on whatever is good, right, true and lovely (Philippians 4:8). To look for the good even in news stories of war and wrongdoing. To fill my mind with more of what is lovely than what is not. Most of all, I’m choosing to not let myself become desensitised by the darkness that pervades.
While we may not be able to ‘unsee’ what we’ve seen, and though it’s impossible to live in this world without being confronted by bad stuff, we can choose to limit exposure to the onslaught of images that circulate online.
We can close the browser, refuse to follow links and maybe foster vulnerability with a trusted friend to share weaknesses or temptations. Ultimately, the light is stronger than the darkness – and as hearts and minds are flooded with what is good and true, the light dispels the darkest corners of the soul.
*Disclaimer: I’m not advocating never watching horror movies or the like, people have different sensitivities. Just to acknowledge that which might instil fear or anxiety in you and to avoid it.