“Missed Perceptions” by Mark W. Harris
December 4, 2011 – First Parish of Watertown
Call to Worship – from Mark W. Harris
This is the season of darkness, bringing a longing for the lost light.
We await the return of the sun, starting its long climb once more to fill the earth with life.
We want the warmth and light of the fire, to fend off the darkness we see so early in the day. The dark brings images to our minds of distress and evil, the unknown, with things we cannot see, and we are frightened of. Despite these fears, may we also come to embrace the beauty in darkness. Bring us winter season a sense of freedom from the glare of too much light. Let us learn to welcome a soft, embracing darkness, a friend that envelops us with calm and quiet, with no distractions, but only a place of rest and renewal, of possibilities and dreams. May we be at home in the darkness of the season, in a place where our souls may rest from growth and frenzy. Now in the darkness of our souls, may we be soothed and comforted once again, that we each might know once more a sense of serenity and peace.
First Reading – from Slouching Towards Kalamazoo by Peter de Vries
Second Reading – from Moneyball by Michael Lewis
We each have our own perceptions of reality. Through experiences, relationships, and various modes of learning, we gain a sense of how things have or should happen, Because we all live in our own unique worlds, we may not share realities with each other. We may each see things differently, and our perceptions then overlap and interact. Those perceptions may be strikingly different, and may clash, but moreover, they may be entirely inaccurate. We are always in a process of creating reality together, based on individual perceptions. So it’s important that they be as truthful as possible. There was an egregious case of misperception this week when a first grader in Boston was accused of sexual harassment for kicking another boy in the groin during a fight. For one thing it appears the boy was acting in self-defense after he was choked while trying to retrieve some stolen gloves. Second, it was an action taken in a fight, and had no relationship to sexual harassment, which is about patterns of abuse, and which the first grader probably had no concept of anyway. While it may be a good thing that schools are vigilant about bullying and violence, they ought to pay attention to what actually happens before applying labels that give the perception that an act occurred, but had no basis in reality.
There were also some misperceptions in the hiring of the new Red Sox manager this week. We were told it was a mutual decision among management, but it hardly seemed so when the team president swooped in, identified his personal choice, and he is the one who was hired. Other kinds of misperceptions in baseball may tell us even more about life. A few weeks ago I saw the movie “Moneyball,” based on the book of the same title by Michael Lewis. Moneyball begins with the premise that the business of major league baseball is an unfair game. Some teams, like our beloved Sox, have all the money, and others, like the Oakland A’s do not. How do they compensate and try to win on this uneven playing field? Enter a new general manager, and his nerdy assistant from Yale who begin to use statistical analysis in their search for talented, but inexpensive players. To find these players, they must nurture a new way of perceiving talent. The old way of finding talent is mostly fueled by visual perception. They took the players with the right tools and the great bodies. This is kind of like the stereotypical perceptions that two members of my immediate family often receive. My wife is tall for a woman, and so people say, “oh you must have played basketball.” Then the karate sensei sees my six foot five, two hundred and forty pound son, and says, “Oh, you should play football.” Needless to say, these perceptions are not very perceptive.
The Oakland A’s management wanted to turn the game on its head, get outside the box that dominated traditional thinking, and prove that manly and muscular homerun hitters who we usually perceive as the producers of the requisite number of runs winning games with blasts from their bats, may not actually produce as much as players with large derrieres who get on base by much less exciting means, such as taking a walk. As the movie and book progress, the team implements the new strategy, but never fully explain it to a befuddled manager who operates from the old school of great body means great player. There are a couple of important learnings that come from this story; one of which I will explore more next week. This is that statistics or numbers cannot measure everything, no matter how they are broken down and analyzed. There is timing and chemistry and chance and injury and who knows what else. After all, despite this religion of sabermetrics, the A’s have actually never won anything.
The other message in this story has to do with how we perceive others, and how that prejudices the judgments we make all the time. In the movie, the General Manager follows this newfound faith based on his own experience of being the naturally skilled and great-bodied player who failed as a major leaguer. Enter Chad Bradford. Like the awkwardly shaped hitters who walk a lot, Bradford was a pitcher who under the traditional perception of who makes a good pitcher would have been ignored, laughed at, or even scorned. One look informed by the traditional perception of whom and what makes a good pitcher would have earmarked him for failure. His motion is unusual and awkward. Lewis tells us that Bradford wants to pitch like a normal pitcher. Bradford has his own submarine style, but the new faith teaches that the effects of the style are all that matter, not the appearance or the presumptive necessary techniques. Pitchers need to get outs, and the style, manner or appearance of how they get those outs does not matter. And then, there is the intangible quality of imagination, or perhaps a feel or intuitive knowledge of how to get those outs. Under normal circumstances, to look at Bradford, no one would have given him a chance. But he loved the game, adapted with each new challenge, and knew he had to use deception and guile. His ball didn’t have movement, but he did. What if we adapt our perceptions, and make room for the possible before we rush to judgment that it won’t work?
The perceptions we live by are in many ways the truths, or even the stereotypes that govern our lives. These perceptions may be driven by the appearance of our surroundings. Young people, at least when I was growing up, were often told never go into a bar that does not have windows which you can see out of. The perception is that this is a place where bad things occur inside, and no one can see in to help or protect you. These perceptions may be made up of the larger truths that emerge from the culture we live in. In baseball’s culture for instance, they defied the culture that taught that a pitcher could only receive major league consideration if his delivery matched what was perceived as the proper style or motion. How often have we all heard in our jobs, or in home repair projects – “it must be done this way.” A prominent perception from more than a century and a half ago was that woman should not be allowed to preach in any church. It was widely believed that women’s voices were not strong enough, that they were too emotional and thus could not engage in rational discourse and decision making, and they need to set examples of being wives and mothers. Olympia Brown and others like her challenged this perception by showing that no cultural, social or ecclesiastical power had the right to hinder her in her calling to serve. These perceptions seem antiquated to us now, especially since more than half our ministers are women, but it is not yet a universal perception. It was my privilege this fall to preach from Olympia Brown’s pulpit in Racine, Wisconsin, and meet a woman who is now in her nineties, who once knew Brown, although her chief memory was not pleasant, being coerced to curtsy to her, as if she were the Queen. My perception that the experience should have been magical was hardly based in her reality.
Our perceptions are the products of who we have become over the course of our lives. But when we underscore that the world needs to be this particular way, then we are rejecting or ignoring others ways to perceive the world. We may fail to give a new idea or a person a chance because it or they seem unorthodox or awkward. While we cannot determine or be responsible for how others perceive the world, we can choose to respond to those perceptions with openness to new or other possibilities. We achieve a certain freedom when we stop believing that the world needs to be a certain way. How can we address the misperceptions we live by?
Here in our Unitarian Universalist church a common perception is that Unitarian Universalists are not spiritual. We are the rational, perfectly in control faith that denies any experience that exceeds what we experience as the natural world. Some people assume we do not have experiences of God, or supernatural events, and anyone who admits to such a weird thing does not really belong here. Is that true? I know people who feel embarrassed to share that kind of religious experience in UU churches, because their perception is that we don’t accept that kind of experience. Many of us perceive that a good education means we are immune from problems like addiction, but that is hardly the case. We have been so focused on personal salvation by education, do we tend to perceive that an educated person is a moral person?
What is it we mean by spiritual? Is it that we want more emotion expressed – like love or affection, because our perception is that that is spiritual, and we are too often misperceived as Emerson once said, as corpse cold. Yet we have people who cry every time they set foot in the church. Plus who is to say that feeding the hungry, or helping a child, or taking a meditative walk are not all spiritual things. I have a historian friend who describe her study of UU history as a spiritual practice, and yet more often than not we would label that rational or intellectual. We may perceive the person or community in a certain way, but we may be dead wrong. When I attended seminary in Berkeley, I was afraid to admit to my classmates that I was passionately devoted to baseball. My perception was that they would think that was too mainstream and establishment. And so when I went to see those Oakland A’s, I never invited any of them, or told them what I was doing. My perception of how they would judge me, thus led me to hide my own true self. So perhaps the first way to let our misperceptions go is to not let them prevent us from being honest with ourselves and others.
The first thing to remember, then, is don’t let false perceptions limit what we can do or even determine our action or lack thereof when they have no basis in reality. In the novel Slouching Toward Bethlehem, Peter deVries describes the phenomenon of the words becoming truth even if there is no evidence of a reality being there. Speaking of an identity crisis may help precipitate one. I may not have perceived that I was burned out, but I learned the word, and someone implied it, so perhaps we allow it to be perceived as truth, even though it may not be so The underachieving teenager Anthony says his mother might have avoided a mid-life crises she experienced if she had never heard the word. Be careful what you perceive as truth. Look at our ecological crisis. Most climate scientists agree that global warming is happening and is caused by human activity. Yet contrary to this fact, a study shows that 2/3 of Americans, as may be obvious by the rhetoric of Republican candidates, believe that scientists actually disagree about this. The people said scientists don’t agree, when they actually do. They claimed the scientists either disagree or are not sure, or just don’t know enough. And what does this misperception lead to? Well, naturally the people are less likely to support programs to reduce global warming. What this does is help undermine certainty about the need to act, and makes us wonder if we can ever deal with the problem. Maybe it is the power of the media to create confusion about the truth. They can often give the perception that a few clouds is the next blizzard of ’78 or that a shooting in one school makes all of them deadly and dangerous. Misperception like this can make us want to give up. Here is where the spirit of Chad Bradford can inspire us. He was determined to find a way to pitch, and would not let his unorthodox style or his own personal idiosyncrasies deter him. Those of us who get overly anxious about how others will perceive us, or judge us, often struggle in interviews, and hope that others will see through the impression of great bodies or smooth presentation and not undervalue us, but see through to the qualities of past performance or hidden potential, and give us a chance to show our loveable and talented selves.
A second thing to remember is to notice who you are talking to. In a former church where I served I remember a wealthy parishioner coming into the office one day to talk about her trials of getting ready for a big ski vacation in Colorado. She went on and on about the difficult hours of preparation and packing the bags for her big family. As she shared this plan with our barely surviving middle class church administrator who worked two jobs, I knew the rage would fly as soon as the vacationer left. Our perception of what is normal, or what is an everyday expense is often not the experience of every other person in our community. Some of our UU churches have given up the water communion because they felt like it was a competition to see who had the grandest, most expensive vacation. I had this experience myself recently when a woman was telling me about driving down to Long Island for regional running meets so she could showcase her daughter for college coaches in the competition to get noticed. I felt like her daughter was being groomed to be a racehorse. Why did she think I would encourage this show of competitive thirst for success in children? We need to be sensitive to the person on the receiving end of what we perceive to be so important, especially when it comes to showcasing our money, or our children because it is easy to make others feel bad.
The third thing to remember is to give everybody a chance. As you know there are lots of misperceptions about immigration. These perceptions are usually widely divergent. One view is that we need to send all these illegals back, and the other is that they are entirely beneficial, and do all the jobs we refuse to do. As Damien Cave said in the New York Times, facts don’t seem to affect these perceptions. While each side spews their perception of truth, no one addresses the actual system of immigration, and so there is no good process to separate out those who should be shown a way to stay, and others who should leave by virtue of criminal records. The perception might be that they are defying a system in place where there are readily available visas, but people as we know, wait years and years, even decades. The lack of a fair system really gives very little chance to follow a clear pathway to becoming citizens, especially those who are unskilled or come from what is perceived as an unfavorable location.
In our own lives we want people to perceive us with fresh eyes. When the Buddha was a young boy his family tried to protect him from seeing the pain and sorrow that exists in the world, and so his perception of the world was the idyllic surroundings of the royal castle. Enlightenment came for him after he left that castle to see what the world really was like. For one thing he saw that there were many perceptions of the world, and people’s different experiences of it, and together they had to co-create a more loving and just place. How we would do that is not be governed by misleading perceptions, and then to remember that we all have our own gospel of perceptions, and we as co-creators of a world need to open ourselves to the experience of others. We do that by giving them a chance. Historically Unitarian educators, following a belief in human potential and innate worth, said give a chance to those who are often perceived as worthless or uneducable. Samuel Gridley Howe, the first Director of what is now Perkins School for the Blind helped Laura Bridgman become the first person to learn to communicate even though she was deaf and blind. He believed we must open our minds and truly perceive that everyone should be given an opportunity to learn in their own way. This, too was at the heart of Jesus’ message. As we begin to celebrate the season of his birth, we remember how people were confused about how to see him, and he asked, Who do you say that I am? The perceptions of his enemies were things such as misfit, country bumpkin, and troublemaker. What he was doing was challenging people to change the way they see and act in the world, and it was threatening. His radical invitation to let the stranger, or the rejected, or the ones who we perceived as worthless to sit down at the welcome table and enjoy dinner with him troubled those who followed the cultural and religious perception of what was acceptable. Can we challenge those perceptions of truth we live by, and open our hearts to how others see things, too?
Closing Words – from Dom Helder Camara
Do not smile and say
you are already with us.
Millions do not know you
and to us who do,
what is the difference?
What is the point
of your presence
if our lives do not alter?
Changes our lives, shatter
Make your word
flesh of our flesh,
blood of our blood
and our life’s purpose.
Take away the quietness
of a clear conscience.
Press us uncomfortably.
For only thus
that other peace is made,