As a child, I loved to play with kaleidoscopes, fascinated by the ever-changing prisms as I twisted the lens. I have learned that people are like that. I see them—you see me—through different prisms, and often the images are distorted. We see the same person, we go to the same party, we listen to the same speech, we read the same book, and we walk away with widely different perceptions.
In my late 20s I was engaged in a struggle over the future of journalism at Baylor University, my alma mater. I met with the new department chairman to discuss my concerns in what I thought was a properly respectful and civil meeting. To my horror, a university vice-president called me long-distance a few days later and accused me of having lied to the chairman. In the course of our conversation, I realized that the chairman had completely misrepresented the meeting.
As an historian and journalist by training, I am committed to facts and evidence. As a Christian, I believe that Truth exists and is discoverable. I prided myself on my honesty, and to be accused of lying was an attack on my character. I shared my distress with a wise older friend in the Baylor administration, Tom Parrish, development vice-president. Tom taught me one of the most important life lessons I have ever learned, long before political operative Lee Atwater coined the phrase, Perception is reality.
Ella, you think that you can beat everyone over the head with the facts, and if they have all the facts, they will see the world the same way you do. But different people have different perceptions. Some people see the world through warped lenses. You could go to the same party and come out describing two entirely different events. Neither of you would be lying. You would each be describing what you experienced.
In the years since then, I have often remembered Tom’s lecture. What people perceive to be the truth is what matters, because people act on their perception of the facts.
This truth parallels the axiom, power perceived is power achieved, which I blogged about here last month.
We have witnessed it countless times in world affairs, when the United States and the West, with an historic Enlightenment and Judeo-Christian worldview, try to negotiate with nations with a very different history, culture and value system. We are witnessing it in the polarization of the political parties and the voting public. Whose “facts” do we believe? We struggle to understand those who receive the same information but reach opposite conclusions.
Albert Einstein, the famed physicist, may have started it all when he developed the theory of relativity. He wrote, Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.
C.S. Lewis, the great Oxford scholar and Christian apologist, intuitively understood the importance of perception. In 1955, he wrote in The Magician’s Nephew:
What you see and what you hear depends a great deal on where you are standing. It also depends on what sort of person you are.
And just recently, Susan McIntire tweeted a quote from Bill Watterson, creator of “Calvin and Hobbs”:
From where I stand now as a widow, my perceptions of grief, loss and life alone are very different from my perceptions as half of a couple.
What about you?
Books I’ve been reading lately on the subject:
Photo: I edited my profile picture in picmonkey.com and then added kaleidoscope effects in tuxpi.com.