October 21, 2015

Nailing Jello to the Wall

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.   - C.S. Lewis

The longer I live the more convinced I am that we do indeed create our own reality. A recent conversation brought this into focus.

As I listened to a "horrible" experience shared with me, it became clear that the worn out platitude "There is no reality, there is only perception" lives on for a reason.

As the tale unraveled, and knowing well the entire cast of characters, I looked at the events as though they were playing out on a  3-D sphere that I could manipulate and view from different angles. Each angle told a story of its own.

 Songs are as sad as the listener. 
- Jonathan Safran Foer

There was the story that was being told with all of its rawness from the perspective of the storyteller. If I turned the ball, a completely different story appeared as I factored in my knowledge of a different person in the story and took into account their motivations. Another spin showed a completely different tale told by a different participant. Tilting the ball another way presented the event at the center of the story - all by itself - before anyone had a chance to color it in hues of perception. As is most often the case, the event was the only neutral element.

Being uninvolved in the goings on allowed me to see it from a detached point of view. It became clear to me that what could have been something completely benign had become highly significant to the storyteller. So significant in fact that she will filter other events through her perception of this one and look to validate the beliefs she acquired from this in future interactions with these folks.
From her perspective, her feelings were invalidated. She feels her property was violated, her objections were unheard, and therefore she is unimportant. Since that's how she internalized the event, this forms her reality of not only the event but also of those involved. Hopefully those feelings will mix with contrary evidence from earlier experiences with those same people and will become tempered or even outweighed.

 Change the way you look at things and the things you look at change. - Wayne W. Dyer

This same event has created a different reality for the others parties involved. They have colored it with their own points of view so that their picture probably bares little resemblance to the storyteller's picture and my guess is that they are unaware that the impact made on the storyteller was significant.

I have seen firsthand how perception can affect relationships. As a parent, I hear stories from my own children that flabbergast me. I hear them recall events from their childhood that I can barely make out because their experience of the event is so completely different than mine. I have seen my own actions interpreted in ways so far from my intention that I am completely bewildered and perplexed. It's been a rude awakening that has caused me to reflect on my own upbringing - events that have had a significant impact on me - and to re-examine them. I try to see them from that 3-D spherical perspective to see what other perspectives those stories may hold. This practice has changed me.

It's caused me to have more compassion for those I once believed intended me harm or appeared to show reckless disregard for my feelings. I also try harder to see people less as one dimensional and instead in their fully fleshed out forms including as many of their life situations as is possible. For example, instead of seeing something my mother may have said or done as "how could a mother do such a thing," I now realize that no one is ever "just" a mom or just any one thing for that matter. My mother was and is also a human being, with feelings, problems, disappointments, and dreams all her own. She is also a wife, a daughter, an in-law, and friend. Like all of us, she was sometimes acted upon by outside forces that she couldn't control. In short, she said and did what she did as all of those people - not just as a mother.

 Most misunderstandings in the world could be avoided if people would simply take the time to ask, "What else could this mean?”
  - Shannon L. Alder

It's, apparently, also caused me to become aggravating. Aggravating because when someone comes to me with a "story" I try to take the sphere approach and offer different perspectives to what they may be experiencing in order to help them reframe it - see it from another point of view. It's been a rude awakening to me that others don't want to hear a different perspective. They want me to get mad at those they're mad at and take their side in that moment. The different perspectives might be welcome after they've had time to cool down, but my sphere approach makes them feel as though I'm not validating their feelings! See what I mean by intentions being misinterpreted? It's happening to you too! Every day.

The only reality that seems consistent to me  is that nothing we say or do is without effect. Life is like soup. We can't keep the flavors of the individual ingredients from combining. Once they're tossed into the pot they become part of and flavor the entire batch. An insult by a husband at breakfast can easily simmer and be served to the children at lunch.

Life is complex and we each view it through lenses colored by perception - perception that may or may not have any basis in reality - whatever that is.

 Your perspective on life comes from the cage you were held captive in.  - Shannon L. Alder

Uncovering reality can be as tricky as nailing jello to the wall. Reality shifts and changes shapes constantly as it's acted upon and perceived. It's one color to one person and another to someone else. What tastes sweet and refreshing to me might activate your gag reflex.

It's raining. That's a terrible thing to a bride who's planned an outdoor wedding - and a wonderful thing to a farmer who's watching his crops wilt in the field. The rain is only water falling from the sky but each person's reality of that truth depends on how it's affecting them at the moment.

The terrible thing about all of this is that we are all observers - packed full of experiences that color our observations. We filter each experience through other experiences and base our observations not only on present information but also on our personal history and accumulated belief systems. That can make things tricky. New relationships are acted upon by our past relationships - so much so that our new love interest can sometimes be expected to do penance for the sins of their predicessor or at least be punished for those sins.

Reject your sense of injury and the injury itself disappears.  - Marcus Aurelius

The wonderful thing about this is that we can change our perspective and thereby change our reality! Awareness is the first step to making it possible.

All of life's events are happening on a sphere - metaphorically and literally. How much better would things be if we could find a way to step back and see them that way? Would we be more understanding of other points of view? Maybe even more tolerant? Would we think twice about our own actions if we could see the impact they may be having on others? Would we all become aggravating? There's a lot to unpack here and this is just my limited perception of it! I'd love to hear yours!


  1. Just the kind of post I love. Thought provoking and helpful. I am completely with you on all of this - I think the rain analogy really sums it up. My own problem with this is I find it a constant struggle to actually live day to day with all this in mind. Deeply embedded emotions cause the reptilian brain to respond to perceived stresses with the fight or flight response. The thinking brain does not kick in until the flight or fight response has got you away from the perceived danger (even if it is a neurotic perception). I guess that was so cavemen didn't stand there mulling over what kind of animal was about to eat them! I find that the deeply embedded unhealthy emotions I have often override a more sensible frontal lobe response to difficult situations. I have a brilliant ability to sit and figure things out as per the thinking in your lovely post here AFTER I have had a melt down over something someone did or said. It's the neural pathways that are etched deeply in our brains from birth (and probably in the womb too) that cause the problems. If a person suffered a lot of stress as a baby and developed very crude mental coping mechanisms that became a part of their brain wiring, it is practically impossible to prevent them from kicking in throughout later life. The best I have been able to do for myself is develop the habit of training my frontal lobe to follow up dodgy emotional reactions with a sensible rational one ASAP! I ponder this problem all the time and constantly remind myself about perspective, perception and intention etc but I still find myself getting hi-jacked by the deep unhealthy neural pathways, just like sets of rail road points! When you think about the fact that we have a world full of people who mostly all have some unhealthy emotions from childhood to deal with, it becomes clear why we spend so much time caught up in conflict. It's hard enough for people who ARE aware of all you said in your post but so many people don't have a clue about this stuff and blunder through life blindly hurting others and being hurt. Thanks for a very interesting post and reminding me of stuff I sometimes forget!

    1. Thanks for your input Gilly.

      I sure hope I didn't give the impression that I'm perfect at this either. I'm brilliant at it when it's someone else's issue and I'm an outside observer. You're absolutely right! Our conscious minds are hijacked by our subconscious minds regularly and we replay fear responses in situations that don't call for them on a regular basis. I've become much better - over time - at letting the wave of emotion roll back out and waiting to see what's left on the shore before I decide on a response. That way I know better exactly what I'm responding to and can do so rationally.

      We have a terrible habit of tripping over our history and creating more of it without deliberate, conscious, effort. My hope in writing this post was to make people who didn't realize there were other options aware of them. I remember the AH HA I felt when it was brought to my attention as a teen.

      Your embedded emotions comment brings up another common cause for instant, out of context responses. I might be able to help you with that. I found a process that worked wonders for me. So well in fact that I'm becoming certified in the practice. As part of my certification, I need to help 30 other people and I'd love for you to be one of them. If you're interested email me at anita@lifeisn'tbroken.com.

      Have a great day and beware of that reptilian hijacker!

  2. It may be my iPad but I couldn't get your follow me on Bloglovin button to work. I had to actually go to Bloglovin, find you and follow from there. Like I said, could be my iPad but you might need to check to make sure it isn't at your end. Have a good day.

    1. I only wish it were your iPad. That button has done nothing besides get me on an email list that I can't seem to find a way off of. :0

  3. Hi Anita!
    What a great post on a topic that is even more slippery than jello! Perception is a crazy thing, right up there with memory. I'm not sure if our memory fails us or if our perception of events fails us ... I sometimes feel like I just can't be sure of anything!
    Now, normally, I would say this is a strong argument for living in the present moment, a la Eckhart Tolle. The past is not what we think it is and it's done anyway, so be present. And, how awesome is it to think that we have so much personal power over present and future events, given what Wayne Dyer says about changing things simply by changing how we look at them. (Great quotes by the way!)
    But what about our stories? I'm starting to explore personal essays and memoir, and I find myself stopped short. How can I possibly write about anything in my past? How do I even know if I remember it correctly? Is using 'correct' and 'memory' in a sentence an oxymoron? Should I give up and just call it fiction?

    1. All good points Tracey. You will remember things as who you were when you experienced them. You may draw different conclusions about their meaning now with the passage of time and personal growth but our memories are our reality of the past. They're valid and your perspective is as worthy as the perspective of anyone else who shared those moments with you. Don't deny your truth because it doesn't fit with a different version offered by someone else. Write YOUR story. That's my advice and I guarantee its worth every cent you paid for it! :)

    2. P.S. Be it far from me to argue with Tolle (yeah right) but I believe the past is EXACTLY what we think - as is the present. Regardless of how we get over and move through our past, it's stuck to us like toilet paper on a shoe. We live with it and through it every day - present in the moment or not. I agree that dwelling on hurtful events is adding insult to injury but we are an accumulation of experiences and aren't reborn day by day. Thank heavens! If I had to acquire the experience I have all over again from breakfast to bedtime I'd be exhausted!

  4. This is all so right! Often, I wish I could go back to age 10 and do it all RIGHT. I do often think, though, that materially I have quite little, but am happy - I suppose some women would be moaning at their husbands for the things I don't mind about :)

    1. I've often wondered if I would go back and redo things. It's all of those experiences that have led me to where I am today. Changing any one of them could redirect my path and I'm glad I've landed where I am.

      You're right about some women being unhappy about what makes you happy. Misery and happiness exist in the same space and and the difference between them is perspective.

  5. So true, Anita! I see this all the time, too. I think writers are especially good at seeing things from different angles, since we must do this with our characters all the time. I do know, though, when I'm upset about something, I want a friend to hear the "emotion" and help me with that, rather than the facts so much, you know? So I try to be that for others. In other words, I keep my balanced view to myself and simply mirror what they're feeling, and that seems to work better. I know I appreciate that when friends can do it for me! The balanced view can wait until the emotions have calmed a bit.

    1. Great perspective Colleen. I've actually been trying to do that a lot more lately. My husband appreciates it! I'm finding that a lot of his extreme positions last about 10 minutes - till he calms down - which he does a lot more quickly without my "help." ;)

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  7. I love your take on making lemonade of lemons, and your insights about how realities differ so dramatically depending on the teller of the tale. I got so jazzed about the possibilities that don't always meet the eye, at first glance, that I just finished writing a book on that theme (fiction). I find it endlessly fascinating to imagine scenarios that could lead to different conclusions. Thanks for getting me to contemplate this more deeply with a great essay, Anita!

    1. Thanks Jann. Sorry for the delay in replying. For some reason I missed the last two comments.

      CONGRATS on finishing your book. How does it feel? It's like giving birth.