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Thursday, February 23, 2017

Perception Is Not Reality

Perception can be fantasyland
My former boss used to love to say “Perception is reality”. All he meant by it, I think, is that it’s important in business to consider how our actions appear to others. That’s certainly a relevant concern when your income depends on your ability to convince people to buy stuff, but it’s not quite what the person who coined the phrase intended to convey.

The line has been attributed to eighties political strategist Lee Atwater. I dislike it thoroughly: communication is tough enough without deliberately eroding the meaning of words. Our general failure to apply our critical faculties to aphorisms like Atwater’s simply accelerates the disintegration of language into meaningless babble.

I’m not kidding. Hey, we’re talking about the nature of reality here.

Objectivity and Sensation

“Reality” is one of those few precious English words that describes the state of things as they actually exist, independent of human perception. “Truth” is another, “fact” and “data” come pretty close, and “genuine” or “real” are also useful. There are not many of these words, and we need to retain them in our language if we are to even attempt to describe the actual state of the universe in which we live. Objectivity is important because things like science (and therefore civilization) require it. Real, lasting relationships require it. Our spiritual lives require it.

What bugs me about Atwater’s line is that it dumps accuracy in favor of being short and memorable. You see, when Atwater said “Perception is reality,” what he meant that our senses create OUR inner “reality” or worldview. Our beliefs come from the input we receive via nature.

I don’t disagree with Atwater’s idea, but I hate that he has incorrectly used the word “reality” to describe what is (in reality!) nothing more than perception. Atwater spoke of “your reality” and “my reality” as if they could possibly be different from one another, just like the addled hippies of my youth spoke of “your truth” or “my truth”.

Utter nonsense. Post-modernist tripe. Reality is reality, period. 2 + 2 is always 4.

So, in fact, Atwater’s too-clever-by-half not-quite-truism actually boils down to “Perception is perception”, which is what we call a tautology: he’s simply repeating the same thing in different words, and in this case the second word is being badly abused.

Maintaining a Grasp

Now admittedly, maintaining one’s objectivity is not an easy discipline. Perhaps for human beings it is impossible to sustain for any significant period. Our senses constantly interfere with it. As the skeptical Ebenezer Scrooge famously said to the ghost of Jacob Marley:
“You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you.”
But the rational reader recognizes that regardless of Scrooge’s perceptions and their origin, Marley’s ghost was either in his bedroom or else he wasn’t. Either he was a genuine manifestation of spiritual reality sent by Heaven to change Scrooge’s miserable life, or else he was a mere hallucination: a crumb of cheese. I don’t think Dickens tells us, and from a storytelling perspective it hardly matters. It definitely doesn’t matter to the Cratchitt family and especially not to Tiny Tim, who ends up the most significant beneficiary of Scrooge’s moral transformation.

That said, it certainly matters to us real-life “Scrooges” whether our moral acts originate in truth or lies; in the state of our digestion or in our dealings with God in Jesus Christ. It will absolutely matter at the judgment.

Reality matters, not just our personal impression of it. Ask the guy who thought he had a good marriage about the value of his perceptions five minutes after his wife throws his belongings on the front lawn. I may self-identify as a rainbow unicorn if I wish, but that does not make it so.

Living in the Real World

Scripture encourages us as much as possible to live in the real world, not in our own private La La land, however pleasurable that may be:
“For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.”
Thus, Paul says, the believer is to be realistic about who he is and how he is to function within the Body of Christ. He or she is to be a sober thinker, not a fantasist.

I might imagine myself to be a wonderful public speaker, full of original thoughts and deep spiritual insights, but nothing could be more irrelevant than my subjective opinion of my own skill set. If I want to serve as a teacher among God’s people, I need more objective data. Specifically, I need to know whether I am edifying the people of God when I exercise what I think is my spiritual gift. That means I must listen to my wife when we’re driving home and take her criticisms seriously. It means I must listen to my elders if they tell me my grasp of doctrine is shaky or that there are a few verses in James I really ought to consider more carefully. When someone shaking my hand at the door tells me they had no idea what I was talking about, I need to give serious consideration to the possibility that the problem wasn’t his intellectual laziness but my failure to communicate effectively.

Most importantly, I need to constantly weigh what I am saying from the platform against the words of scripture themselves to see if I am somehow misrepresenting the truth of God.

Dead Wrong or Sober Judgment

Now of course the opinions of others can be wrong. Or they may lie to us to make us feel good or because they hate confrontation. I may be the greatest Bible teacher in the world, and all those negative feedback “data points” may be dead wrong. But the greater the amount of independent testimony I accumulate, the more likely I am to get an accurate picture of my abilities and the more likely it is that the Lord can speak to me to address those areas of my interaction with my fellow believers that need tweaking or even a major overhaul.

Frankly, if I don’t do these things, it is unlikely that I am thinking of myself with sober judgment. Or to put it another way, my perception is NOT reality.

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