Psyche Served by Invisible Spirits by Luca Giordano, c. 1696 (public domain – Wikimedia Commons)

“What is essential is invisible to the eye.”  

— Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, 1943

We’re surrounded by the invisible every day — things both wondrous and terrifying, sometimes simultaneously. Consider all of the things that we can’t see: atoms, air, viruses, time, space… I could go on, but those are already some heady issues.

Did you know only 5 percent of the universe is observable matter? That’s a powerful reminder of this simple fact: just because something isn’t observed, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

Ancient astronomers inferred the existence of stars and planets without directly seeing them; they observed how other heavenly bodies moved around them. The absence of something can be just as meaningful as the presence of it.

“Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”“To the curious incident of the dog in the nighttime.”“The dog did nothing in the night-time.”“That was the curious incident,” remarked Sherlock Holmes. 

— Arthur Conan Doyle, 1892

It’s a matter of where we put our attention.

That Sherlock Holmes quote is from the story called “Silver Blaze,” about a racehorse that went missing. Holmes knew that it was an inside job because the dog at the stable didn’t react to whomever took the horse. It was his attention to the details — no one told him they heard a dog barking — that allowed him to make the conclusion he did.

In that same story, he found evidence of a candle that had been lit out in the pasture:

“I cannot think how I came to overlook it,” said the Inspector, with an expression of annoyance.“It was invisible, buried in the mud. I only saw it because I was looking for it.”

We see what we train ourselves to see. Our senses are heightened when we want to be aware of something; otherwise, it’s easy to walk around oblivious to what’s happening around us.

Take the concept of emotional intelligence (EQ). A significant part of EQ involves self-awareness, or being able to step back and take an objective look at your behavior, emotions, and reactions, and to learn from it. It takes reflection.

If you were asked to reflect on your values, could you do it? I dare say you could. But can you see your values—those things that are deeply held in your heart and mind?

Probably not, but the way you lead your team or live your life should be a natural expression of those values. The words you choose and the actions you take over the course of days, weeks and years paint a portrait of who you are and what you stand for.

Whether you’re an executive or a parent, your actions alone aren’t enough for people to understand your motives and values. You need to talk about the things you believe in and share with your team or your kids why you do what you do. It’s only through bringing those invisible elements to the surface that we can better understand who we are.

“Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable. When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary. The people we trust with that important talk can help us know that we are not alone.” 

— Fred Rogers

At the same time, we can use our emotional intelligence to discern when we need to remain silent versus when we need to speak up. Two anecdotes related to this bring a smile to my face.

The first is from Art Mandirola, an elderly figure from my childhood. My parents were friends with Art and his wife Anne; they were of my grandparents’ generation, and in many ways were like surrogate parents to my parents.

One Saturday afternoon following four o’clock mass (the favorite mass of the elderly set—gotta get to the restaurants early!), as we were standing and chatting with the Mandirolas, I put a question to Art.

As a preface, I should note that my mom has a habit of pronouncing certain words as contractions. She says p’lice (police), b’loons (balloons), and g’rage (garage). After a bit of good natured ribbing, I decided to let Art be our King Solomon. And boy, did he deliver.

“Mr. Mandirola?” I asked. “Do you say “cement” or “c’ment”?Without hesitating for even one instant, he replied, “I say concrete.”

It was the ultimate lesson in diplomacy: that it’s possible to say volumes without saying much at all—in particular by avoiding hurting anyone’s feelings.

The other anecdote is from Christopher Morley’s introduction to the 1930 edition of The Complete Sherlock Holmes. [You may recall this essay about Morley’s prefaces in a recent essay, titled “The Gift.”]

Morley wanted people to understand the values of the man who brought us Sherlock Holmes:

“Doyle himself must have been a singularly lovable man. There is an anecdote in his Memories and Adventures that reveals very clearly the fine instinct of delicacy in his massive personality. He was visiting George Meredith in the latter’s old age, and they were walking up a steep path to the little summer house Meredith used for writing. In Doyle’s own words:

‘The nervous complaint from which he suffered caused him to fall down occasionally. As we walked up the narrow path I heard him fall behind me, but judged from the sound that it was a mere slither and could not have hurt him. Therefore I walked on as if I had heard nothing. He was a fiercely proud old man, and my instincts told me that his humiliation in being helped up would be far greater than any relief I could give him.’

“I can think of no truer revelation of a gentleman than that.”

The actions we don’t take speak just as loudly as the ones we do take. But in order to make a decision as Doyle did, to preserve a man’s dignity, it took empathy—something we’ve been talking about here recently.

This is a part of emotional intelligence as well: the ability not only to understand your own emotions, but to understand the feelings of people around you. It can be difficult when feelings aren’t expressed, and even more difficult when you’re indifferent.

That quote above from The Little Prince? It’s a quote many people are familiar with. But they often don’t use the entire quote. Here’s the whole thing in context:

“Here is my secret. It is very simple: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

With the heart.

That’s how empathy and emotional intelligence work. We need to think and see with our heart as well as with our eyes and our mind.

If we’re looking for the right things, we can see what others might not. Things about presidents like historian David McCullough wrote about in The American Spirit: Who We Are and What We Stand For.

“It has to do with aspects of individual personality for which there are no ready measurements—the integrity of Washington, Lincoln’s depth of soul…the charm of Kennedy at a press conference, or Ronald Reagan in front of a television camera in almost any circumstance.”

According to McCullough, Truman didn’t see himself as the chief spokesman but as someone who had to make some of the most difficult and far-reaching decisions of any president. “If not brilliant or eloquent, he was courageous and principled. The invisible something he brought to the office was character.” [Emphasis mine]

Sometimes, that’s what we need from our leaders. A feeling that they’re driven by something bigger than themselves and are in service to it and to others.

Many things we can’t see are essential. That doesn’t mean they’re unable to be seen.

The question is where put your focus.

This originally appeared in the August 26 issue of the Timeless & Timely newsletter. Paying subscribers get this and an additional essay with three timely links, three timeless stories and a recommended book and podcast each week. You can choose the option that suits you best:

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