On Perception

When I was a child, I remember hearing my grandmother say that someone uses “rose colored glasses.” I laughed and played along, because I was 11; but in the moment, I had no idea what she meant. A. Is Rose even a color? And B. Why would someone wear such tinted glasses, if it obviously impacts your ability to see. It truly made no sense to me, and I chalked it up to another old-aged ‘wisdom’ that seemed irrelevant.

A few years later, when I was 17 to be exact, I had a friend who seemed to always find himself somewhere in the depths of his own hell, repeatedly.  Looking back now, it didn’t seem like this was a conscious decision to burn off dead wood, but more of a happenstance of his reality. Puzzled at why one could be so angry, and so sad all of the time, I turned to my step mother. She explained to me how he looks for reasons to affirm his anger inside. That he wants the world to be hell, so therefore the world, for him, is hell. Click. He was wearing maybe ‘red colored glasses’. I finally understood the metaphor.

Ironically, I began to see this behavior manifest itself all around me, including inside. I watched as my peers and family all picked their color, and then reacted to the world as if it was real. I choose purple, which I would describe as a mix of blue and red, melancholy, and rage. The world, and all that came at me soon was tinted purple, and everything was responded to with a mix of melancholy and rage. It became so normal, such a part of reality, that I forgot what the world looked like without a purple tint, and I forgot, or didn’t even notice, that I was shading away reality.

I think we are all like this. We all don’t realize the tint that we put on what occurs around us. Some classes call it our “lens”, but for sake of continuity, I’ll stick with the colored glasses metaphor. When we decide to be angry inside, the world seemingly becomes a bunch of stimuli that make us angry. This is the same with sadness, joy, and every other emotion. The most critical thing I have ever learned is that the world seems to be exactly what we make it with our minds. It is perception, not reality, nor happenstance, nor class or money or race or privilege or any other variable, that has the largest impact on our lives.

We are what we perceive ourselves as, and the world is what we perceive it as. There is a book called, “The Obstacle is the Way” by Ryan Holiday that essentially tallies down to: When we identify things as barriers, or opportunities, that is what they become. Based off of the quote by Marcus Aurelius that states: “The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way,” the book is a running list of how perception can change not only outcome, but initial situation.

We can choose whatever we want, that is the power of reason and intelligence that we, as human beings, have been blessed with. We don’t just behave instinctually, like say, others in the animal kingdom. We can reason and make decisions using thought, and then have emotions and feelings about those decisions. We can help others and sacrifice, the door of possibilities is always open to us, and we always have a choice what one to go through.

We can choose to see the world as dangerous, or we can see it as adventurous. We can see environmental inhabitants as stressors, or as challenges. People can be something to fear, or something to explore, and we are able to choose. This choice, this switch in perception is what allows people to understand the dynamic between obstacles and opportunities. People such as Amelia Earhart, who put pride in the backseat, and rode on a demeaning flight course, because she knew it would open doors for her future. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who wrote the Gulag Archipelago and took down the communist regime with words, was a man who had the world taken from him by maybe history’s greatest dictator (if not number one, then top five at least). Instead of seeing himself as a victim, instead of seeing the world as a place at which there is no point in attempting for meaning, instead of wallowing in his sorrow in the gulag, (which is all to reasonable and acceptable. His life literally challenged the atrocities put onto Job, so he had reason to wallow. That is thing huge point with perception, you have reason to choose any tint you want, but you’re the only one who sees that color, who has to pay the price) he turned inside.

Solzhenitsyn began looking inward, asking himself what could he have done in the past to ever lead up to this monstrosity. Imagine that, imagine a dictator imprisons you in the Russian equivalent of a concentration camp and destroys your life, and you ask yourself, “What did I do to cause this?” This is the power of perception, and through it, Solzhenitsyn was able to not only survive, but write the Gulag Archipelago, and even win a Nobel Peace Prize.

We can look at other examples as well. Radical ones such as Viktor Frankl, who sits up with Solzhenitsyn in power of perception, when, after losing his family and suffering in concentration camps, began to write about the human ability to react. Or less radical, but still important examples, such as Steve Jobs seeing his firing from Apple as not a death sentence, or the end of his reign, but as a challenge, where he then created Pixar (and actually begun his reign as the Steve Jobs we know now).

Life is in the power of perception, the power of shifting our minds from accepting what seems like the “truth”, into accepting what propels us into a place to challenge the truth. When we see reality as painful, or mal-adaptive, as any of the examples easily could have (and no one would have blamed them at all), then that is what reality becomes, and the examples would have suffered just like their situational counterparts.

When we allow our minds to become distracted and shallow, the world is then a reflection of what is distracting and shallow. When allow my mind to dive deep into the harmful past, to live in the moments of regret and intense emotion, instead of just traveling back to pluck out useful insight, my world begins to shift. I feel numb, I get distant and internalize, and I over sleep. When I allow, or force, my mind to accept that I am damaged, and that the world has harkened an unfair plate of burdens in front of me, I begin to see the world as damaged, and myself as a burden.

The idea reminds of me of the self-fulfilling prophecy from the field of psychology. If we believe something, then we will begin to act it out, thus fulfilling the prophecy that we set out. If we believe something, strongly enough to the core, that belief will fulfill, or manifest. If we see others as dangerous or with mal intent, that behavior will begin to manifest (there are is a fascinating study that provides teachers with student’s behavior history, and then other teacher with ‘false’ history. The teachers with the poor behavior records subconsciously treated their students poorly, and thus the students scores decreased. The teacher with the good records had the opposite effect. In both situations, the kids were the same, the perception changed). The field of personal motivation loves to harp on the Self-Affirmation theory, which premises around “if you believe you can achieve”. While walking around and telling yourself: “I am successful, I am happy, People like me” seems foolish (and it felt foolish to do this 50 times a day), it sits on the same base of understanding as the idea of perception. What we tell ourselves, is what we are (or what we tell ourselves about the world, is what the world is. I know many people who tell themselves the world is scary, violent, or evil, and thus what does the world become to them?).

There are some fantastic quotes on this idea as well. Henry Ford tells us that “Whether you think you can or you think you can’t you're right”, and Francois de La Rochefoucauld jotted down the idea that “We feel our good and ill fortune in proportion to our self love.” In other words, Henry Ford is stating that our belief sets the outcome, and François de La Rochefoucauld uses wisdom of human behavior to tell us that the way we see ourselves, and feel about ourselves, influences the way we feel what happens to us (which is parallel to the reach on telomere health, which states that the individuals who feel that life is a challenge that can be overcome, instead of a stressor that is destined to doom them, have healthier telomeres).

To close, we can reflect on Jordan Peterson’s 6th Rule in his book “12 Rules of Life”: “Set Your House in Perfect Order Before You Criticize The World.” Dr. Peterson shares the idea that before we aim for the world, lets aim to fix ourselves, our minds, and our own homes. Because who are we to criticize the way other people do things when we can’t even keep our own bedrooms clean? He closes with a thought: “Who knows what existence might be like if we all decided to strive for the best? Who knows what eternal heavens might be established by our spirits, purified by truth, aiming skyward, right here in the fallen Earth?” This goes hand in hand with the understanding that in order to change the world, we must change ourselves. The best, and most efficient way to do this is to change the way we see what occurs to us. Because, who can understand the possible paradisal oasis we could create if we ceased seeing ourselves as victims, the world as evil, and others as malicious?