All experiences are technically memories. Your phone rings. You hear it but only a millisecond or two after it rings. That’s the amount of time it takes for sound to travel through time and space to your ear and then travel from your ear to your brain. Don’t forget it takes time for the brain to identify the sound from memory or to label it as a new sound. Either way, the interaction with my memory lets me know, “My cell phone is ringing.” Just because this process is quick (the quickest of the senses) doesn’t mean it’s free from error. In fact, our perceptions (a combination of senses and processed memory) can betray us. This raises the question, “When you think you're right, how do you know when you’re wrong?”
Not a day goes by that I don’t run into this problem with perception. I remember an event differently than someone else. I heard something different than what was intended. I clearly articulate a point that is not understood by someone else. I interpreted someone’s actions inaccurately. I know I'm not alone. All humans struggle with perception.
The challenge of seeing the world as it is, not how we want or wish it would be, is a humbling and confusing process. Humbling in the sense that I’d like to think my perception of the world is always on point. Confusing in the sense that if my perceptions are skewed, how then do I engage the world (and those who live in it)? How do I know when my perceptions are accurate? How often am I accurate? Can I ever be confident that the way I perceive the world is accurate? How do I know when I’m wrong if I think I’m always right?
Language is a good example of how memory and perception alter reality. Language is symbolic, so words mean different things to different people. At a recent city hall meeting, a white alderman referred to the renewal date of a city policy as “sundown.” In the African-American community, “sundown” is a reference to something completely different. It refers to the discriminative practices of a local government to arrest and mistreat African-Americans who remain in “white” cities after sunset.
Words matter. So do efforts that clearly define the usage of a word. Humans are social creatures and language is essential to collaboration. What does it take to describe the world accurately? What are the challenges of using language to describe reality accurately?
Those Crazy “Flat-Earthers” And Other Scientific Matters
Before the time of Socrates, scientists have understood the earth to be round. And yet, the flat earth theory lives on, even experiencing something of a resurgence. The earth cannot be flat and round at the same time. It is, however, possible to perceive it as either flat or round. So, what is real? If you are convinced the earth is round, how do you know you are right? I, too, believe the earth is round. But my point is this. When you believe you're right about the natural world, how do you know when you're wrong? You may think those flat-earthers are crazy but what’s different about them? To what extent are you free of the perceptive problems inherent to all human experience?
Issues of faith
While issues of faith are sacred, people of faith categorize beliefs into two categories: crazy beliefs and reasonable beliefs. It’s easy for people of faith (and even those who have no religious affiliation) to point the finger at the Jonestown Massacre and declare that their faith was misplaced. Even, perhaps, crazy. However, we all profess faith in something. Granted, a “reasonable” faith (whatever that is) may not ask you to follow blindly into death. But many faiths require the faithful to make a sacrifice. What makes one faith expression right and another wrong? How do you know that your faith holds the “truth” and others do not? When you know you are right about the way you see the world, how do you know when you are wrong?
And it’s not just an issue between faith communities. Within communities, denominations, etc., people disagree about interpretation and the requirements for faithful participation. When you believe your interpretation and practice are right, how do you know when you get it wrong?
The Force For Togetherness
Facts can get washed away in the sea of emotional process. My desire to be connected with other important people and to participate in a meaningful relationship system can skew my ability to experience reality accurately. Dr. Murray Bowen had an amazing way of articulating how our thinking system can be overridden by our feeling system. In this way, the need to agree (to be fused together) outweighs the need to be accurate. It can work the opposite way as well. People who are too close will disagree about what’s real to create distance between them. It is less about being accurate and more about managing the anxiety in self and in the relationship system.
The emotional process is driven by fear. One-way the relationship system addresses a perceived fear is through a strongly articulated position that demands compliance by others. You are either with us or against us. We are right, and they are wrong. They are the devil, and we hold the truth from God. Horrible things have happened in the name of religion and science in response to perceived fears. War, research and public policy that made sense at the time was based on inaccurate perceptions. Again, when you know you're right, how do you know when you're wrong?
So, how do we align perception with reality? It’s a process. One that takes time, often years. It is what Dr. Bowen called an effort towards differentiation of self. It's the ability to see what “is” while staying connected to meaningful others. For me, I’m clear about a couple of things. You can call them beliefs and core principles. I base my actions on them. When I’m afraid or am surrounded by people who are afraid, these beliefs and principles guide me. It may not be much, but it helps me get through the day.