How Our Perception Shapes Our Lives After 60
Cruising along the freeway, my sister, Joan, and I were absorbed in a passionate discussion. Suddenly, time stood still. The car in front of us spun out of control, leaving the driver facing us.
I calmly braked and pulled over to the right shoulder, missing the out of control car. The driver, now facing the wrong way on the freeway, managed to bring his car to the left-hand shoulder. I stopped momentarily and then slowly accelerated back onto the roadway and on to our destination.
The adrenaline rush didn’t hit until we were back underway. We were jubilant that we survived this close call and no one was hurt.
Joan called me Mario for several days, referring to the famous race car driver, Mario Andretti. She was impressed at how calm and expert I was at keeping us safe. I don’t feel I can take credit for this. It was as if something took me over and got us to safety.
We were lucky that we didn’t get creamed from behind in the rush hour traffic, or that there was no one in the left lane that could have hit the out of control car, creating a freeway disaster.
But that’s not what stays with me upon reflection.
As we talked about this brush with death for the next week, we each had a different perspective about what happened. Joan saw a blue car. I saw a gray one.
She believed the dark-haired male driver decided to just turn around and go back on the freeway. I believed he mistakenly took an exit and tried to correct, turning too sharply and losing control. Neither of us can actually remember what really happened, and yet it nags at us trying to understand it.
Perception Is Colored by Conditioning
This is a good example of how each of us has our own perceptions, our own perspectives. Two people experiencing the same thing can have radically different memories of what transpired. One is not more correct than the other. They are our individual mental impressions.
How we see things, our perceptions, are connected to our current conditioning, and even to our genes. Our perceptions are guided by our beliefs and give rise to our perspectives. But because we experience the world through our senses we believe what we experience is real, the truth.
How Our Senses Color Experience
After all, how can my eyes not see what’s really before them? One person sees a purple pillow, but I might see mauve, violet, magenta, or iris – colors that are distinct for me as an artist.
Right now, typing out here on the veranda, I hear the morning sounds of a Balinese village waking up. There’s the soft rustling of bamboo leaves, the tinkling notes of the creek below me, ducks quacking and cocks crowing.
My partner, on the other hand, hears doves cooing, commerce commencing for the day, the tinkling of a dog’s bell as it passes by, and of course, the roosters crowing, because wherever you are in Bali you can’t escape the roosters!
How do we distinguish tastes between us? You can dance around descriptions of taste, but you can’t really convey what a strawberry tastes like to someone who has not eaten one. How taste settles on our tongues is influenced by our cultures and our upbringing.
And so it goes with the sense of smell and touch. When you put all five of our senses together, perceiving the world around us, it’s no wonder we each experience differently. We know this intellectually, but do we really live it deep down?
Grappling with Truth
Philosophers have been grappling with the meaning of “truth” for eons. Nietzsche wrote, “All truth claims are contingent on a person’s perspective rather than fundamental reality.” So what do we as non-philosophers do with that? How does it affect us?
In truly understanding this difference in perception that each of us carries, I think we become more flexible, tolerant and compassionate beings. Our innate desire to be “right” gets softer edges when we realize there is no right “right.” There is only our influenced version of the truth.
Sometimes walking down a street with my mind buzzing along doing its thought-thing, I realize everybody’s mind is doing this.
They might look silent or tuned into their devices, but their minds are filled with mental gibberish just like mine. And they’re perceiving the world around them from differing vantage points and with different conditioning.
I’m struck with what a rich patchwork of impressions we are; what a glorious kaleidoscope of beings.
Have you noticed how different your impressions are from others experiencing the same event? How did that make you feel? How does that realization affect how you treat others? And how do you describe the taste of a strawberry? Please share your insights in the comments below!
Susan Tereba, an artist, jewelry designer and writer, has lived in Bali for 27 years. She had 14 years of experience as the primary caregiver for her husband, who had Alzheimer’s. Susan now writes and speaks with the goal of inspiring other caregivers for those with chronic illnesses. Please visit her website for more details.