Control your perceptions
When I was ten or eleven I went camping with family and friends at a state park in the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York. On the first day we all went down to a large snow fed swimming hole. The water was very cold and I didn’t like the fact that I could not see the bottom. The cold water was constantly being churned by the “buttermilk falls” that rushed down the mountainside into the picturesque pond. This place was beautiful. It had rocks on three sides, and was much larger than the public pool I was wading around in back home. I was a very new swimmer, unable to talk myself into even taking the deep end test at the pool. I had a problem. Everyone, including my stupid little brother, was having a ball, swimming to the far side of the swimming hole and jumping off the rocks. But not me. The width of the pond seemed to grow whenever I got five feet from my safe shore.
To add to my fear, fellow campers were all laughing about “How the little fish nibbled at their toes.” Everyone thought it was wonderful. I wanted to go back to camp. I didn’t say that however. Because, in my family, like most, (unfortunately) if they smell fear they tease you forever.
That first night around the campfire I spent most of my time furious with myself. I was sure that I was the only person who was petrified of swimming to the other side of the swimming hole.
When I was safe in my sleeping bag, I resolved to myself that the next day I was going to swim across the pond, or die trying.
By the time my slow family got to the swimming hole the morning was mostly spent. The sun was high, and the pond had grown. I steeled myself for the inevitable. I jumped into the frigid water and flailed away with my arms, kicking madly with all my might. My eyes were tightly closed. My heart was pounding. I beat the water with everything I had. I was doing it. I was going to conquer the vast waters.
When I opened my eyes I was overwhelmed with despair. I was only half way. I felt panic take hold. My lungs were burning. My legs were heavy. My fingers refused to move due to the cold. I was gasping for air. I was going to die, and I didn’t care.
I was nibbled on. Something had tasted my lower leg. I perked up in the water, peered through the murk to try to see the cute little fish that was playing with me. An algae covered basketball with a head bit me. Hard! A huge snapping turtle was going to devour me! I kicked at it, started to flail my arms and I didn’t stop until I rammed into the rocks on the far side of the pond. I had made it. My leg was bleeding from a small bite and my hands were cut from smashing into the rocks. All that didn’t matter. I was alive. Then I noticed that I had swum across (I didn’t even want to think about how I was getting back).
Looking back on that incident, I am amused that I was okay with the idea of drowning, but there was no way I was going to be eaten. Being eaten motivated me, drowning didn’t. Perception counts. Reality is much less important.
Our brains do not know the difference between thought and reality. You can see this at any movie theater. Moviegoers go through the full range of the emotions that the actors portray on the big screen. People lean to the left if the plane on the screen leans to the left. People feel like they are falling when the camera rushes to the edge of a skyscraper or cliff.
The American Heritage Dictionary defines perception as:
Psychology - Recognition and interpretation of sensory stimuli based chiefly on memory.
The “chiefly on memory” part is what I would like to talk to you about. As we go through life we experience our world. This experience is accumulated into understanding. This understanding is a guidepost that we compare new experiences against. This comparison is the filter that our mind judges our world by. The process of filtering information through our memories is how we interpret our experiences. Thus, our personal experiences are our reality. Our reality is our perceptions and we make sense out of our world through our perceptions.
This may seem like a bunch of psycho-babble, but it’s worth sticking with me on this. If our perceptions are our interpretations of the world, it must mean that how we interpret our world produces our reality. To put it simply, there is no reality, only our perception of reality. With this information we have power. We have power over the filters that interpret our reality.
No reality. What a concept! Let’s look at this in the real world (sorry about the pun). Scott shows up at work to find a pink slip in his In Box. He is being let go. After five years he is unemployed. Is this a good thing, or a bad thing? The answer is neither. It is just a situation. What makes it a good or bad situation is how Scott interprets it. For all we know, Scott has been trying to find the courage to look for a new job. Maybe he was bored with his old job. But, his boss was a great guy and he didn’t want to leave with this big project looming over everyone’s head. This would make this pink slip a good thing.
However, if Scott recently purchased a new car with a huge monthly payment, this pink slip would be a bad thing. Scott’s history filters the news into the good or bad category. News isn’t good or bad, it simply is. We perceive the good or bad of it.
At this point most smart people love to prove me wrong. “What if the reality is bad, like the loss of life or something?”
It depends on how you deal with the tragic loss of life. History is full of terrible things that are forged into good.
A teen died drunk at the wheel of his parents’ car. His parents had the car towed to his high school’s parking lot. Through their pain they wanted the crumpled car to teach.
A seventeen-year young boy dies in a senseless motorcycle accident. His parents donate his heart, kidneys, and corneas so others can live.
Noah did nine years in prison for selling drugs. When I met him he was telling his story so others could learn. He said, “The nine years I spent in prison saved my life. I have no doubt about it. If I had not gone to prison I would have died on the streets of San Francisco from the twenty years of bad choices that I had made.” For most of us, nine years in prison would be perceived as bad, but for Noah, it was perceived as good.
ALS, Lou Gahrig’s Disease, crippled Stephen Hawking, the preeminent mathematician and astronomer. His body is out of his control. His mother was once interviewed and she told how she worried about how he drank and played around in college and how he never applied himself. “If it wasn’t for his illness he never would have taken the time to apply his mind.” I am sure that Mrs. Hawking doesn’t see her son’s disease as a blessing. However, the way he has used his mind to advance our knowledge of the universe is definitely a blessing (and, he got to play himself in an episode of Star Trek).
This morning I awoke and turned on the radio. The newscaster was explaining “The hope is that the plane had mechanical problems and the accident was not a terrorist attack.” As I learned more about the plane crash in Queens, New York, two months after the World Trade Center and Pentagon terrorist attacks, I too was hoping for accident versus terrorism. It is easier to deal with an accident than a terrorist attack. But either way, 250 people are still dead. This is a powerful example of how one’s perception is controllable. If the plane crash was an accident, we could learn from it. We can make aircraft safer. But, if the crash had been a terrorist attack, we would have been dealing with planned chaos and hatred.
We all choose our own perceptions. We personally assign meaning to our world in an attempt to make sense of it. The process of assigning meaning is the use of personal filters. Our filters are learned through experiences. How you react is a choice.