Your Perception Is Not My Reality
Several weeks ago, while sitting in church, two women behind me whispered to each other about how hot it was inside the church building.
As the minutes ticked by, their whispers grew steadily more annoyed, wondering why the staff would allow the church to get so hot. Why wouldn't they realize how warm it was and turn on the air conditioner? They made fans out of their bulletins, waving them in that over-the-top way intended to catch eyes, grumbling and sighing as they did so.
Meanwhile, I burrowed a little deeper into my sweater.
Were the women lying when they said it was hot? Was I just pretending that the room was cold? Of course not! But the two observations are directly opposed and cannot both be correct. Or can they...
After a year fraught with social and political tension that doesn't seem to be easing up, I wonder whether it is less our ideas and more the way we express them that has set people at odds. If a person expresses an idea as an absolute truth, and I see things a different way, then either I am wrong, or they are, and one of our opinions has to win out. One of us has to be right, and the other has to be wrong.
If I had confronted the two women behind me in church, telling them "actually, it's a little chilly in here" what might have happened?
They may have looked at me like I was a crazy person and written off my assessment. "How can this strange girl think that this CLEARLY hot room is anything but CLEARLY hot." They may have tried to argue with me. "No, it's definitely hot in here." They could have told me that obviously because there were two of them and one of me, the majority ruled. "Since we both agree it is hot, and you believe it is cold, you have to be the one who is wrong here."
None of these possibilities result in a positive conversation. None of them solve the problem.
What presenting an opinion or a feeling as an absolute truth fails to acknowledge is that people experience the world differently. Our senses and experiences vary wildly, meaning that something that seems irrefutable to one person may sound absurd to their next door neighbor.
What if, instead of saying "it IS hot in here," the women spoke in a way that acknowledged the individuality of the human experience: "I am hot."
The fact is that they were hot and I was cold. Both of these things can be true simultaneously.
When we are wasting time arguing over what is and isn't, we are failing to solve anyone's problems. When we begin to argue opinions and feelings as fact, we inherently have to invalidate another person's very real experience in the process.
Whether a person is a little too warm or a little too chilly is an insignificant topic, but a stay-at-home mother living in a small southern town telling a female Hollywood executive that, because she hasn't personally experienced sexism, it doesn't exist, is a very large problem. For a white person who has witnessed and been a part of healthy working relationships with black people to proclaim that racism is dead is absurd...but it's being done. Arguments across the internet rage over whether or not the latest superhero or Star Wars movie is "good," as though an opinion on entertainment were a fact that could be argued.
Your perception is not reality. Your experience is not universal truth. Your opinions are not facts.
Facts are unchangeable, while opinions are malleable. Opinions can be shaped and formed as new information is taken in, as long as we allow them to be, of course. To hold opinions as fact, and to refuse to change, is a refusal to grow.
What if we could learn to speak about our opinions and experiences in a way that presents them as no more and yet no less than simply that? What if we acknowledged that others had similar stories to share? What if we recognized that two opposing stories from time spent in a great big world can both be true?
What if we accepted those stories as a chance to meet in the middle, to grow, rather than to build walls and throw grenades of hatred over them?
What if instead of trying to tell me what to think, you listened to why I see things the way I do?
What a year 2018 could be.