(Photo: Bonnie Schupp) “Your assumptions are your windows on the world.
Scrub them off every once in a while or the light won’t come in.”
A couple days ago, I heard Bill O’Reilly comment, “Perception is reality.” It made me think about an elephant—not a red one but one from India. His statement, although a cliché now, deserves some ontological consideration.
American poet John Godfrey Saxe (1816-1887) wrote a poem based on an old Indian fable about six blind men who meet an elephant. Each one feels a different part of the elephant and defines the elephant in a different way.
The first touched the side and claimed that elephants were like a wall. The second felt the tusk and thought elephants were like spears. A third grabbed the trunk and believed that elephants were like snakes. Feeling the knee, a fourth one said that elephants were like trees. The fifth reached an ear and stated that elephants were like fans. Seizing the tail, the sixth blind man thought elephants were like a rope.
Each man was partly right but all were also wrong. They each understood one aspect of elephants but none really understood what the entire elephant looked like.
Like the blind men, O’Reilly is both right and wrong.
The Subjective Eye
Magicians, illusionists, depend on our perceptions leading us to wrong conclusions. This is their livelihood. Even when we know that a magician cannot pull a pot of flowers out of thin air, we are prone to believe it because that’s what we have seen. Because of the perception of Fox News, it is successful. Masters of illusion use the idea that perception is reality.
O’Reilly is right if we look at individuals. Our perceptions are our personal realities. My reality might not be your reality but yours is real for you. Your reality is shaped by your sensory perceptions, past experiences, beliefs and attitudes. We are limited in our ability to perceive and can only perceive a part of any situation. We see what we expect to see. Then we fill in the blanks with assumptions and this leads to us believing that our limited perception and our assumptions are the whole truth.
Consider eye witnesses to crimes. The same event might be seen by three different people and each one will give different details about what they saw. The reality of what happened changes depending on the subjectivity of the observer.
I once staged an argument with a fellow teacher in front of a class. Then I had my students write a report of what they saw. Stories varied depending on how students felt about the other teacher or me.
Even the same event might be experienced differently, depending on what a participant brings to the event and what he is expecting. Think about the difference between parents and children and how a particular road trip might be seen as fun by one and boring or tedious by another.
Much of our reality has to do with our attitude and expectations. Look at placebos, for example. Why do some people get better taking fake pills? Because they believe in them.
In the Classroom
Teachers who expect the best from their students often create a reality that conforms to that expectation. We shape our reality through our attitude and what we expect from ourselves and others. As an enrichment teacher for three years, I worked with gifted and talented students but I always kept an open mind to possibilities of special education students who had learning difficulties. I remember at the end of one year, a special ed student came into my room and said, “Thank you, Ms. Schupp.” I asked him what he was thanking me for.
“I didn’t know I could do all those things. You helped me see that I could,” he responded. Insightful comments by someone who supposedly had learning difficulties.
One (among many) student in one of my classes had emotional problems. He was a challenge to work with. I eventually found a solution for those times when he was so disruptive that I couldn’t continue. I told him to step right outside my door and when he thought he could control himself, then he should come back in. He never abused this trust. Later in the year, before he was sent to a special school for students with behavioral problems, he sent me an e-mail thanking me for respecting him. Once while in the middle of teaching 9th-graders, I gave a student the keys to my car so he could retrieve a folder I’d left there. He had a history of car theft but returned to me with the car keys and the folder.
I’ll admit that regardless of expectations, things still happen. My first year teaching, while I was preparing my room the day before students started, two boys who would be in my 9th grade class showed up asking if they could help. I thought, “What nice kids to want to spend their day off helping a teacher.” Of course they were just checking me out. They assembled a bulletin board for me and when they left, my bag lunch had disappeared from my desk. Robert Anton Wilson understood these students, “Reality is what you can get away with.” Two months into the school year, one had been arrested for torturing and murdering his sister. But these are the exceptions.
A Positive Reality–Attitude
A friend just lost his leg. His everyday reality has changed but not as much as one might expect. “I’m lucky,” he said. “I have my brains. I don’t need two legs to write at a computer.” Besides his positive attitude, he’s also working hard at therapy to help himself as much as possible to adjust to the logistics of his new reality.
I see peace as a reality only when individuals feel peace within. This may never happen universally because of the human tendency to grab only one part of the elephant. However, I choose to bring peace and connections to my personal reality as much as possible. I choose to expect the best from people I meet. And I expect that others have something to offer me to enrich my life.
I’m a Servas member and a Couch Surfer. My husband, David, and I open our home to strangers from all over the world. We have also stayed as strangers in people’s homes in many countries.
Many people do not see why we do this. Since 1979, we’ve invited strangers into our home. Every experience has been positive, some more positive than others. These connections with people I originally perceived to be different from me have changed my personal reality. I’ve discovered they are more like me than they are different. They leave our home no longer strangers but friends. These experiences have changed the way I even perceive a map. Now many place names are no longer just names of places but places where friends live. Life is how one perceives reality. My life is rich in connections and possibilities.
So the proverbial question: If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, did it really fall? It depends on your definition of reality. If your definition of reality is that someone must perceive the action through the senses, then it didn’t happen. My answer is yes. It did happen. Just because I didn’t hear or see it, doesn’t deny the reality.
When I die, will life in the the world continue? Of course! I hope so. I may not perceive what is happening but other realities will go on.
Seeing the glass as half full
A glass filled halfway with water can elicit two different responses…two opposing realities. My glass is half full. and it has made all the difference. This is the reality I perceive.
The Blind Men and the Elephant poem:
Kabbalah, Science and the Perception of Reality