Doctor Strange and Small Keyholes

“You’re a man looking at the world through a keyhole. You spent your whole life trying to widen that keyhole. To see more, to know more; and now, on hearing that it can be widened in ways you can’t imagine… you reject the possibility.” – The Ancient One

Live-action movies based on comic books have a challenge to overcome: comic book stories are unbelievable. Live-action movies need to seem grounded in reality in order to keep viewers. The audience has to be able to suspend their disbelief for a couple of hours. For the most part, the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies have done a fantastic job of this. At times, however, these movies have asked a little bit much of us. In Iron Man 3, Tony Stark had to deal with the personal aftermath of alien monsters descending on New York city from a magic portal in the sky while he fought alongside the Norse god of thunder. Even the millionaire playboy in a super-robot suit found his new world a bit difficult to believe, and he wasn’t sitting in a theater chair like I was!

So I was skeptical when I went to go see Doctor Strange. His powers are drawn from a more mystical source, and I was concerned that this movie would simply ask me to suspend too much disbelief. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that while the movie was fantastical, and at times visually disorienting, it also spoke to something basic about being human: limited perception.  

Early in the film, the Ancient One explains to Dr. Strange that the way he, like everyone else, sees reality is like looking at a room through a keyhole. The keyhole limits what he can see of the room on the other side. Strange’s rational and scientific learning would only bring him so close to the keyhole. To see further into the room, he would need to “forget everything he knows” and expand his perspective.

Science itself has shown just how limited our perceptions can be. For example, we can only see a limited part of the electromagnetic spectrum. Only a fraction of the electromagnetic spectrum is what we see as visible light. You cannot see infrared or ultraviolet without special equipment, and yet it is just as much a part of the real world as the rainbow of colors that define everything you see with your eyes.

This limitation shows up in our relationships with other people as well. We experience the world through one body, in one place at a time. At best, we can imagine someone else’s perspective, but I am still trapped behind my own eyeballs. I cannot even see the world exactly the same as my wife does, much less the same as a person living on the other side of the planet.  This idea is not far from a mystical tradition many of us are more familiar with. Consider the words of Qoheleth in the Bible: 

“When I applied my mind to know wisdom, and to see the business that is done on earth, how one’s eyes see sleep neither day nor night, then I saw all the work of God, that no one can find out what is happening under the sun. However much they may toil in seeking, they will not find it out; even though those who are wise claim to know, they cannot find it out.” (Ecclesiastes 8:16–17, NRSV)

Doctor Strange reminded me of what religion, science, and relationships have told us: our keyholes are quite small.Thankfully, the movie also provides a hopeful possibility that we might be able to draw our keyhole out just a little bit wider. Like the titular doctor, we can grow and let a little bit more light into the way we see the world. 

What do you think? In what ways can people broaden their perceptions? What dangers might lie in broadening them too far? What did Doctor Strange say to you? 

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