Perceptions and Misperceptions
Our beliefs are influenced by our perceptions of what we experience, but that doesn’t make them true. How much of the strife in the world could be eliminated if we accepted that perception is reality and that there isn’t just one that is right?
I focus quite a bit on perception in my workshops because so many people believe that what they see or hear is the truth or reality, which leads to misunderstandings and conflict on a regular basis.
What we see or hear is not the reality, but our reality.
We see the world through our individual lenses based on our culture, religion, geographic location, education, early childhood development and past experiences. No two of us have had the exact same experiences so although we may find people that agree with us about something, that doesn’t make it true for everyone.
This came to mind this week because I received an email that gave me pause on this topic. I wrote an email to a client explaining that due to someone’s limited availability, the process was going to take longer than expected. His reply was to ask me why I was framing the situation in such a negative light and to point out that it sounded like I was saying that this person was being uncooperative. I re-read my email and all I saw was a factual statement, that this person already had other obligations preventing them from being available to see me. His perception was that there was some sort of underlying implication that I was criticizing the referenced person.
Does this sound familiar? If so, consider how you reacted in a similar situation. Being human, I get triggered just as easily as the next person, but mindfulness practices have instilled a habit that causes me to pause before acting. An instant reply back to him asking why he would jump to such conclusions or why he was being confrontational or why he was complicating things might feed my ego but would just create or escalate conflict and frankly solve nothing.
So instead, I took a breath, wondered if he feels this person is uncooperative so through his perception would think I do too and simply responded that it was not my intention to imply anything other than the fact that this person is very busy and doesn’t have time to meet. I also apologized for any misunderstanding. The next message from him a few hours later regarding a different topic was light and to the point, so problem solved. At least for now.
The point here is that when we assume that everyone perceives how we perceive, we’re setting ourselves up for disharmony at a minimum and major conflict in the worse-case scenarios. You can see this throughout society and it’s on the increase over the past decade or so. Unfortunately, it won’t stop until each of us learns that there is no one reality. Two of us can look at the same thing or hear the same thing and come away with two completely different views of what we saw or heard. And that means none of us can truly know if we’re right or wrong about pretty much anything.
I think the main challenge with right and wrong is that our perceptions of them rely heavily upon our own morals. And we believe our morals are right. We’re heading down a slippery slope now, but morals don’t really exist either. At least in terms of one reality. Morality is our ability to separate right from wrong and if we don’t truly know what is right or wrong, well, you see the problem.
I’m not saying that there aren’t atrocities in the world, nor blessings. I am saying that the judgment we assign to each event, person or belief is what is right or wrong to us, individually. It is our perception of the situation. I believe slavery was wrong, but millions of people disagree with me. I can say that it was morally wrong, so I’m sure I’m right, but again, based on whose morals? Mine. And there are also millions of people who would say that I am right. But not only are our perceptions of right and wrong based on our subjective morals, they are also a product of time in addition to all of the other factors I listed regarding where our perceptions come from.
Returning to the slavery issue, while I believe it was morally wrong, does that also mean that I believe the millions of slaveholders 250 years ago were all immoral, indecent human beings, probably including some of my own ancestors? Or was it morally acceptable at some point in time and then it changed? In some parts of the world today, 8-year-old children work in factories to help support their families. Again, I think that’s morally wrong, but would those poverty-stricken families agree? When 8-year-olds worked all day here in the United States up until 1938, were all of those parents morally corrupt? I think it’s a good thing that our morals change, but what prompts that change is usually time. We can’t always see that something is wrong in the moment. We need the added perspective of looking back in time to recognize that we might have been wrong.
On a lighter note, I eat meat. I understand the scientific health data that says I shouldn’t and have certainly cut way back in the last 10 years, but I really love beef and chicken and even the occasional bacon with my eggs. I don’t believe I’m morally corrupt for eating a beef taco, but a vegetarian or a Hindu or an environmentalist might. They could truly believe that it is morally wrong. From complex significant issues to something as simple as my dinner, who decides what is right or wrong? And when?
If there is a rock on the ground and two people see it, they may see it differently based on their perceptions, but a rock is real. You can pick it up, drop it, throw it – it’s really a thing. There is no moral implication related to a rock, at least that I know of, so even if one of us sees it as a beautiful stone and the other sees it as nothing more than a tripping hazard, we can at least agree that it is a rock.
The difference is that things that exist could be considered reality, yet we could still have different perceptions of them. Things that exist only in our mind however, like our perceptions themselves which become our beliefs, have no objective truth. We believe them, that’s it. We have collective beliefs, when the majority of a population all believe in the same thing, like the legality of marriage or what money is or even at some points in time, treating people like property, but even these things are nothing more than a concept in our minds. They aren’t rocks. That doesn’t mean these things aren’t harmful to human beings, aren’t horrific atrocities when we look back in time or even in certain places in the present, but until we understand that they are all based on perception, we can’t begin to mend ruptures or heal wounds.
As we look at the turmoil in the world, much of it is based on different groups’ perceptions of what is right and wrong, and they are willing to fight to the death over it in some cases. But how much of that is real? I’ve been vocally unhappy with the United States political environment for some years now. I don’t really care which party is involved as our system is set up to pretty much ensure regardless of political affiliation, politicians have no choice but to be driven by reelections over doing what the majority of people want or what is “morally” right, so my perception is that things can’t really get much better until we fix our system. However, the increased promotion of exclusivity, hatred and violence coming from our politicians disturbs me.
I could easily say that I’m right. After all, it’s obvious to me that we need to work together and stop hating and fighting because that’s the morally right thing to do. Right? Well, maybe not. It’s usually the case that nothing changes until it gets so bad that it forces us to change, so I could try to change my perception to be one of viewing all of this as change in progress. While I feel like we surpassed the bottom some time ago, we evidently haven’t hit the bottom yet, and until we do, things can’t really get better.
Many people have the perception that all of this vitriol is necessary and the right thing to do in order to spawn change. Although I strongly disagree, it is through my mindfulness practices that I can step back and question how I know for sure that they are wrong and I am right. I can ask myself, is this a real thing that exists that I’m perceiving or misperceiving or is it a product of the mind? The answer of course is that it’s in the minds of millions and millions of people. It is perceptions based on beliefs established through past experiences. I have no way to truly determine who is experiencing misperceptions, including myself. I have no way to know that I am right or wrong, only the ability to identify what is right or wrong for me, based on my beliefs and morality.
I’m sure you’ve heard the cliché, perception is reality. Perhaps it’s time we really reconsider this. If we can accept that our reality is based on our perceptions and that others may have very different perceptions, we can open space for dialogue and understanding. I can’t imagine ever condoning violence or hatred or discrimination, but if I can remember that my beliefs about these things are my perceptions of what is right or wrong, not absolute truths, I might be able to better listen to opposing perspectives. Perhaps if we could try to understand what drives people that we judge as immoral, we could arrive at a mutually acceptable solution to whatever the problem is.
The world seems to be in great flux and I’m guessing it’s not a short phase, but a long-term process of reworking everything from how we live, how we work, how we treat our neighbors, and how we protect ourselves, to how we sustain the planet. There are an unimaginable number of perceptions and correlating misperceptions involved in considering all of these factors. But if we start with a hard line in the sand that indicates I am right and you are wrong, we won’t be able to resolve much of anything.
I’m certainly not asking anyone to change their perceptions, beliefs or morals. I am asking that everyone look within to see if we might be stuck in any misperceptions about others’ perceptions, beliefs or morals. Perhaps just a little softening or blurring of that line in the sand could open up the opportunity for meaningful discussions.
Paulo Coelho said that “nothing in the world is ever completely wrong. Even a stopped clock is right twice a day.” It could be something worth thinking about.
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