Reality is a tricky thing. Even on a purely natural level, it is a profound mix of “fact” and “perception”. Every day we make decisions, small and great, based on what we understand to be true. These choices determine the quality of our lives here and now, and even impact eternity.
When our choices have such serious consequences, it's pretty important that we examine what factors influence our perceptions.
Two Women In The Rain
Two women spend a night in the rain, each in her own tent on her own campsite. Same night, same storm, same campground. Same brand of tent, same kind of sleeping bag and other camp accessories. One of them has a great time, and tells her friends later it was her favorite trip. One of them is miserable, and swears off camping for the rest of her life.
“Camping in the rain is the best.”
“Camping in the rain is the worst.”
Which version of reality is true? It depends upon what she values, doesn’t it? One woman valued the adventure of braving the elements and surviving without her usual comforts. The other valued a warm, soft bed, solid walls that kept out the wind and noise, and a peaceful night’s sleep.
Values are a part of perception.
The Elephant and the Blind Men
A story is told of six blind men who are introduced to a creature they've never encountered before. Each places a hand upon the creature, feels it, and later declares what the creature was like:
“It is a creature like a snake,” says one.
“No, it is like a wall,” says another.
“It is more like a great, leathery fan,” says the third.
“It is like a pillar,” says the fourth.
“No, a rope,” says the fifth.
And the sixth says, “It is hard as wood, and smooth as a spear.”
Who is right? Is it the man who touched the trunk, the side, the ear, the leg, the tail, or the tusk of the elephant?
The scope of our viewpoint and the information available to us is part of perception.
The Two Hungry Children
Two children miss breakfast and are very hungry when lunchtime arrives. By a stroke of misfortune, both of their lunches were accidentally thrown in the trash by an over-zealous cleaning lady at their school. The class has a midday field trip, and because of the unusual circumstances, their teacher has only her own lunch to offer the children to share. Each child receives a half-sandwich and a handful of grapes. A few of the other children in the class offer odds and ends from their lunches as well: a slice of apple, a few crackers, a granola bar, a piece of cheese.
That night, one child goes home and tells her parents how thankful she is to have such a kind teacher and classmates, people who gave up their own food to help during her time of need. The parents write a thank you card to the teacher and send an email to the school principal commending the teacher’s generosity and self-sacrifice.
The other child goes home and complains about how the school lost her lunch, how the teacher refused to buy her something but instead offered a mere half a sandwich when she was already starving, and the other children only gave her their “scraps”. The parents write a scathing email to the school principal condemning the teacher for discrimination and treating their child like a “dog” by offering scraps, as if they couldn’t have reimbursed the teacher for buying their child a “real lunch”.
Which story is the school principal to believe? Each set of parents has a different perspective, even though the children experienced the same event.
Attitude is part of perception.
A Funeral and Two Mourners
A young woman dies in a hit-and-run accident at night and her body is found the next day. The best guess of the medical examiner is that it was a high speed vehicle coming straight at the girl from in front of her, and with the evident head trauma the girl died upon impact.
At the funeral, the girl’s aunt stands over the grave and sobs. All she can think about is how frightened the girl must have been during her final moments of life, seeing that car's headlights coming straight at her. The aunt has nightmares for years, and still cries every time she thinks of her niece.
But the girl’s uncle feels quite differently about the situation. At the funeral, he places a bouquet of flowers on the grave and says a brief prayer of thanks that his niece didn’t suffer. She had fallen down a slope on the side of the road where she was out of sight from most headlights, and if the vehicle had not killed her instantly, she could have been in agony for hours before she died. Every time he thinks of his niece, he grieves that her life was cut short, but he is always thankful that her death was quick.
Neither of the mourners really knows what happened that night. Each of them imagines the events differently, and their memory of their niece is colored by a different set of emotions.
Imagination is part of perception.
What Reality Will You Choose to Believe?
If reality is colored so heavily by perception, and perception is influenced by values, knowledge, attitude and imagination (among other things), then how are we to live? How are we to choose, when life puts two paths before us?