How Perception Shapes Reality

Matthew 13: 10-17

One of you handed me a piece of humor last week which perfectly illustrates the thrust of my remarks this morning. What is the difference between a dog and a cat? A dog says, “You pet me, you feed me, you shelter me, you love me; you must be God.” A cat says, “You pet me, you feed me, you shelter me, you love me; I must be God.”

Identical experience. Totally opposite interpretation of that experience. Now there is psychological research, empirical and well verified, that makes it clear that how we feel and respond to life is not determined by what happens to us in life, what comes at us. Rather how we feel and respond to life depends largely on how we interpret it.

Clearly it doesn’t seem that way. Someone ignores us at the party, and we feel hurt. Someone cuts us off on the Kennedy, and the anger surges. Someone disparages our point of view, and we feel put down. We retire, people seem not so interested in us any longer, and we feel diminished, depressed. We find ourselves ill and feel guilty, helpless. The career takes a disappointing turn, and we feel a failure. The contract does not come through and we feel defeated.

It certainly seems like our emotional response to life is created by what comes at us. And it certainly seems that way because invariably event and emotion seem so almost simultaneous. Some one treats us unfairly and we become angry. And we say, “He made me angry.” But the truth is no other human being’s action alone ever makes you angry.

Between his action and your anger there is an interpretative moment, however brief, however below the level of consciousness. The real story is: he does something, you interpret it as a threat to you, and then you become angry. So how you think about, understand what comes at you in life, plays the decisive role in how you will function, whether you are optimistic and hopeful or pessimistic and depressed. The point is as old as Plato and Proverbs. “We don’t see things as they are. We see things as we are.” “As a man thinks in his heart, so is he.”

So between what happens to us and how we react is rooted in certain interpretations of reality which determine often how we feel.

Think, for example, of the uneasiness many of us feel about flying. Based on what, the fact that planes sometimes come down and it might happen to us. Now reality is that we are at much more risk riding to the airport than taking off. But that reality is overridden by an innermost thought. It might happen to us. Kirk Kirkpatrick, author, writes, “At the end of a convention in Hot Springs, the weather turned extremely bad and the ceiling dropped right down onto the field at the small airport. We waited about two hours and finally our plane came in. We climbed aboard, took off and headed east for a change of planes in Memphis, and on to Atlanta. As we started toward Memphis for our change, the plane had a stop to make in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. Just as the little plane started down to approach the landing in Pine Bluff, I looked out the window and could hardly see the wingtip. I looked around me and I saw fear in the faces of my fellow passengers as I am sure they saw in mine. About that time the intercom came on and a strong voice announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, we’ll be on the ground in Pine Bluff in just a few minutes. It’s raining, it’s sleeting, and the visibility is practically zero…So may I suggest that you be very careful driving home from the airport.”

So our inner world is governed by a collection of ever more irrational ideas, irrational in their absolute character. “Diets never work.” “You always nag.” “Men are tyrants.” “It is all my fault.” It is all your fault.” “If I can’t find a way out of this, I will die.” “I never seem to get anything right.” “How can I possibly win with everyone else working against me? “ I just know my kids are going to be a mess.” The thing to note here is that these are crazy ideas, never, always, everyone, but we buy into these all the time without reflection and they leave us feeling helpless and despairing.

Dr. Martin Seligman tells of a woman he was seeing who blamed everything that happened on her husband. Bad restaurant meals, late flights, even imperfect creases in her dry-cleaned trousers. “Sweetheart,” the man said one day, in exasperation after being bawled out because her hair dryer didn’t work, “you seem to blame everything that happens to you on others.” “Yes,” she shouted, “and it’s all your fault.”

There are adolescent girls who receive less attention from boys than they desire and conclude that “I am really not very attractive and will never find someone to love me and there is nothing I can do about it.” There are studies of men and women who have made it big and fast in the business world but who cannot enjoy their success because of the way they interpret their success to themselves. “I really do not deserve such a top position and sooner or later I will be found out.” Studies show that the elderly who watch a lot of TV live in fear because everybody knows that the streets are full of criminals.

We so easily buy into negative cynical interpretations of the world out there, a world we are increasingly convinced is beyond our control or power to change. It comes at us through the public media, our peers at work, even our parents. It engenders increasing amounts of skepticism, both in our personal worlds and in the larger world of politics and social responsibility.

So in terms of our own personal effectiveness and well-being, we constantly need to return to attitudes that are positive and hopeful, that understand whatever confuses or confronts us from a perspective that enables us to see a way forward. We need, in a word, to learn again the explanatory style of the Biblical faith, for if the old faith is anything, it is both realistic and hopeful about the world out there. Bad things do happen and there are truly bad people. Three million dying right now in the Congo. Religious still shoot at each other in Kosovo. Criminals brutally kill in Cairo, Egypt and Cairo, Illinois. But faith in God as the ultimate ruler over sin and death, grants hope even in the midst of corruption and cancer. Jesus is not oblivious to human failure but never concedes to the worst the victory. Life is always cross and resurrection. So the Biblical picture of things offers us a way of understanding and interpreting our lives which is never naïve and romantic, but ever healthy and confident.

We need words that grant us another way to interpret and understand so that we may live positive and powerful lives. Words we can internalize, make part of our mental furniture so that we can dispute the crazy, discouraging words that find home in us from current culture or past programming. Again and again we need to return to the old words, the words of faith.

But how do we do this? If we are to instinctively respond with healthy understanding against tough times, healthy understanding that will enable us to retain a buoyant spirit, we need not become Biblical scholars or understand elaborate theological systems. But we must take the time to internalize, make a part of our unconscious response to the events of life, some of the great simplicities of faith. God loves you no matter your failings. Your life has some great mission. No matter what happens there is some good in it. You can conquer whatever comes. Trust in the Lord.

I have grown ever more grateful that I grew up in a time and a tradition where we had to memorize great numbers of Biblical words. I learned a hundred one summer for Vacation Bible School and got a book as a prize. The book is long lost, but the words are not. It would not hurt you to keep near such words, read them again and again, maybe even commit to memory, let them sink into your soul. “I can do all things through him who gives me strength.” “Be strong and of good courage, be not afraid. The Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” “In quiet and confidence shall be your strength.” “All things work together for good.” “Though my mother and my father forsake me, yet will the Lord take me up.” Words we need to internalize in order to interpret the trouble when it comes, to argue with our pessimism and despair when it descends upon us.

Dr. Robert Coles, of Harvard, in his volume The Secular Mind, quotes a man who works in a General Electric factory in Lynn, Massachusetts. “Both my parents were —they called themselves ‘God-fearing.’ And they were! My Dad would say, He’s watching you, son, so you better try your best. Those three words ring in my ear to this very day, and I’m getting near a half century old: try your best. I guess I do. I show up early and leave late. I clock in the hours — and I bring home the bacon: that’s life. Sundays, in church, I’ll hear about all the troubles that came his way, to Jesus, and I say to myself: hey mister, he was the Son of God, that’s what he was, and look at all that happened to him. Can you imagine, being nailed up like that, and no one giving a hoot or a holler about you — everybody even calling you bad names? No way to end your life —he was a young man! The lesson: don’t feel sorry for yourself! Don’t slack off in self-pity —my mom told us four that all the time, and she got it right. So, while on the job I think of the sermon or one of the hymns, and I try to keep on my toes…I’m just a two-bit worker in a big plant, but I’m better off than way over half the folks on this planet — hell, 90 percent, I’ll bet — and it hurts me bad to think that I’ve had it easier here in this life than Jesus Christ Almighty did, the few years he came to spend with us. Go figure it out!”

Then Dr. Cole comments….”he himself has managed to figure it out —settle in his mind his own responsibilities as a husband, father, provider and worker, even an employee…He has managed to connect his every day life to his sense of what truly matters, not through a showy, talkative, self-regarding, and smug insistence on his religious faith, and not, certainly, through efforts to corral others to his own way of thinking, but rather through resort to memory, meditation, observation. That is, he remembers the strongly held and asserted religious values of his parents, become his own; he calls up passages of the Bible in an effort to make sense of his personal life, his life as a worker; and he uses his biblical knowledge as a lens of sorts, through which he takes in what he sees in such a way that he obtains a coherent picture of what is happening around and to him.”

But it is increasingly rare to find people, whether sophisticated or simple, who have deep seated convictions, organizing perspectives, that jump up and save them when they encounter challenges that whisper, “It’s useless. It makes no sense.”

Well, we live in an age where everyone agrees that education is increasingly important as a means to the good life. But the back side of this is another attitude that comes along for the ride. It is this: whatever we don’t have to learn in school or university must be of lesser importance. And what we have not learned and our young people do not learn is a robust faith interpretation of reality. And it must be learned.

The result is not that we end up religion-less, but often with bad religion, infantile faith, beliefs that represent an incoherent collection of notions about life. Some kind of religious perspective is inevitable, even if it doesn’t wear that label, because religion is a matter of how we look at life, how we interpret reality, how we understand what comes at us as we move out into each day. We can’t avoid these. They are critical as to how we function and thrive as a human being.

But whether we engage the challenges and troubles of Monday morning with strength and courage and intelligence, depends a great deal on how we understand them. If we or our kids see a set-back as an absolute disaster, we find it harder to cope. If we or our children see a set-back as just one more challenge that we will get through with the help of God, we find it easier to cope.

But it is there for us, if we will learn it and live it. This is what Jesus is pressing when he says that we must be willing to see and hear, willing to be open to a hopeful and healing way of understanding our lives.

Franz Mohr was 17 on a November day in 1944 in Dueren, Germany when a bomb from an American plane destroyed his home and killed his 14-year-old brother whom he loved. Angry and bitter, he lost all faith in God. His life, as a consequence turned empty and meaningless. One day after the war through his closest friend, he met a British fellow who sensed his despair and encouraged him to think about his relationship to God.

“As I headed toward the door he pressed a book into my hands. Enraged at this intrusion upon my personal world, I rushed out. When I reached home, I realized I was still clutching the book. I looked down to see it was a Bible. Angrily I tossed it onto a shelf. I returned to my wild life and sleepless nights. The nights passed as I tossed and turned, and then early one morning I awakened in great agitation…Suddenly and inexplicably I thought of that Bible. I had to know more. I jumped out of bed and rummaged through my belongings…finally my groping fingers discovered it up on a shelf. I pulled the book down, opened it and began to read. Three months later, after pouring over the pages in every moment available, I was finished, but the figure of Jesus, his truth, his way, his life had begun to haunt my days.

“ I shut the Bible and sank back in incredulous relief. After intensive reading and prayer, my bitter self-absorption had been replaced by a broader perspective. I now understood…in the days that followed, my understanding deepened, and with it came a new orientation to life and an increasing contentment with my work. Eventually I earned the title master piano technician, tuning the instruments of concert pianists all over Europe. I married a lovely woman and we had two children. In 1962 I was invited to work in America by Steinway and Sons and my life has never been the same.”

Now the point is not the book, but rather the story of the book, available in many forms in this multimedia age. The broader perspective, the new orientation to life born of Jesus and his people, this way of health and hope time tested by two thousand years, ours to learn and live if we will but take the time to see and to hear.