Sunday, February 20, 2011

Reality vs The Perception of Reality

Believe it or not, reality vs the perception of reality was the argument du jour on my news wall at Facebook. Actually that in itself makes a good illustration of the argument. In reality, Facebook is a social networking site. A more simplified way to describe that reality would be: Facebook is a place where individuals can post thoughts, photographs, game information - nearly anything of a digital nature that they would like; and make them available for other individuals to access. Perception of that reality then becomes more involved with what people do with the site. Given the capabilities of Facebook, (for our discussion) it makes no difference to the "reality" if an individual uses it to play Farmville 12 hours a day or to post hourly reporting on anything from the current events of "my vacation" to the current state of the world. You see, what the people use the medium for IS their perception of why it is available to them and what is its appropriate usage. Although those perceptions involve a certain amount of judgment, it is the next layer that gets judgmental. That is where, having witnessed a segment of posts or time on Facebook, the individual "judges" Facebook as, let's say, "a place where silly, boring people waste precious hours of their life playing equally silly games." Now, keep in mind, this is NOT reality. This is perception. Facebook still sits there - unbiased as to what its life purpose is. It is the perception based glasses or blinders of the human individual that makes a judgment about that reality and then reinvents it. The problem arises when the human is unaware he is filtering reality through his own perceptions.

On my Facebook news wall, the reality vs perception question invariably traveled to the question of "if a tree falls in the woods, but no one is there to hear it; does it still make a sound?" But when you think about it from a purely, "reality vs perception," point of view; while it may be a fun little game to play with, it doesn't provide us a lot of enlightenment. Unless, of course, we allow ourselves to travel far enough to make judgments about whose fault it is that the tree fell. Otherwise, it is not a question about what the difference is between reality and perceived reality; it is a question about whether or not there actually IS a reality beyond what we perceive. Which is another ballpark altogether.

Let's look at another one just to see where it gets us.

There is an elderly man in a nursing home. One day, a water glass leaves the grasp of his hand, falls to the floor and shatters into many pieces. That's the fact. That's the reality. We have a man. We have a nursing home. We have a broken glass on the floor. But, to the individual's witnessing or impacted by the event, the perception based reality can vary greatly. Perhaps the son of the man perceives the event as a sign of his decreasing strength and decline in health. Perhaps the daughter of the man perceives the event as a sign of the nursing home staff's lack of proper care for her father. Perhaps the nursing home attendant perceives the event as a patient's attempt to receive more attention than the rest of the patients.

Now here's the next problem with perceived reality. We can judge all of those individual's perceptions based on what they witnessed or didn't witness on that day or in the entire life of the elderly man and his personality; but what our "rational" mind fails to grasp is that ALL of the perceived realities are correct. Every one of them is correct whether they appear to be in conflict with each other or not. Now, "correct" is probably not the best word actually, so let's substitute "real." Every one of those perceived realities is real. Every one of those perceived realities is real and represents the reality of the individual perceiving its existence.

Understand? We are now in "one man's junk is another man's treasure" territory. You see, humans are nearly incapable of simply reporting the facts of reality. Our opinions, our need to understand and feel safe in our own existence, our fears - they all give us the guidelines of what reality looks like and what it means.

Now the argument on Facebook involved American government. A whole bunch of "isms" were being paraded around as realities. It is impossible for an "ism" to be reality OUTSIDE of perception. Let's break American government down to the "facts."

There are three branches of federal government: fact. One branch is the Judicial Branch: fact. One branch is the Legislative Branch: fact. One branch is the Executive Branch: fact. Together, these branches make, execute, and interpret the laws that govern America: fact.

But when Americans get together to talk about their government, this is almost never what they are really discussing. Instead, they are arguing about whether or not the laws enacted by the government are right or good; why the individual's working in the branches enacted the particular laws that they did; and what the government should be doing that they are not. All of that involves perceptional reality.

Now here is the important part. It is the scary part, but it is also the part where empathy can begin.

Remember all of those perceived realities are real. They are absolutely the real realities of the persons perceiving them. Let's take one that is as far out on a fringe as you can get in order to make the point. Let's say an individual witnesses all of the news of what laws and decisions the federal branches are making and he perceives that the President of the United States is actually an alien from outer space determined to initiate the destruction of the human race. Just because you or I believe that perception to be ridiculous, it is still that person's reality in which he resides every day. Or at least until the next election. We can't assume that any amount of our reassuring him that we have seen the president's belly button - he is a human - will alter his perception. In fact, he might even perceive our attempts to persuade him as evidence we may also be aliens.

So now that I've brought you to this point - this distinction between reality and perceptional reality - what is MY point? Why bother, especially if we can never cajole, argue, or persuade the individual into changing his perceptional reality. He can only do that on his own. My point is what I take from the knowledge that an individual's perceived reality IS his reality.

That man, the one who believes the president is an alien bent on the destruction of the human race? He lives in a very frightening world. Where we may see joy and laughter and all of the best possibilities for the human race; in a very real sense, he is living in a Philip K. Dick novel and is feeling only fear and doom. Imagine how that must feel for him. He must face every day with a generalized sense of dread. He is essentially facing a hell on earth. It is so important that we attempt to interact with him only in a compassionate way. It's my belief, at least, that it is only possible for an individual's perception of reality to change when he or she is in a calmer, more relaxed state away from his or her fears. So rather than yelling at people and calling them idiots for what they believe or attempting to argue them into agreeing with you; take a step into the painting that is their perceived reality. Try to understand why they would believe that. Try to understand what it must feel like.

But here is the most important part.

Let me make it plain, I am not saying we need to be on the outlook for weapons of mass destruction under the bed or in the garage of everyone who doesn't agree with us politically.

What I am saying is that just because we believe another individual's perceived reality is "crazy talk;" we should never assume that whatever actions they claim they may make are anything other than factual statements of their capabilities in their current perceived state of reality. It is action based on shared perceived reality that brings about change and revolution, but can also bring about destruction and slayings of the Charles Manson variety. Individual perceived reality can bring about great thinkers, artists, visionaries, inventors, but it can also deliver that mundane job worker who takes the whole office hostage.

Underestimating someone else's capabilities within their perceived reality can bring about an end to your own.

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