“Seeing Clearly” by Christopher Johnson – May 31, 2009
“Seeing Clearly” by Chris Johnson
31 May 2009
“You have your way. I have my way. As for the right way, the correct way, and the only way, it does not exist.”
German classical Scholar, Philosopher and Critic of culture, 1844-1900.
As I sat down to work on this sermon, I strayed a bit from the advertised topic “Vision – How we View the World, Others and Ourselves” and found myself thinking more about how we see – and share – truth. It’s now called “Seeing Clearly”.
Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.
Emperor of Rome, 161-180
I bought my first camera when I was about 10 or 11. Since then, I’ve loved photography. I’m fascinated with identifying and isolating those things we pass by daily and then I try bring them front and center in a way that (hopefully) makes us stop and say “wow. THAT’s what that looks like??? I never noticed!”
I’m amazed at how light, contrast and color interact. I can get fixated on how the shape of a tree limb echoes the street light it’s next to. I marvel at the symmetry of a spider’s web or the tiniest of flowers.
And I seek to capture it all on film … or, rather, in pixels nowadays.
Is what I do (when I take a picture) the recording of an objective reality, or is it an expression of how I, as the photographer, see and want to present what is before me?
Reality? Perception? Or a creative blending of the two?
[You were given a photo when you came in this morning. It asks a question. Can anyone answer it?]
When I was recently showing a friend the photos I took on a trip to Kenya, she commented on how the close-cropped face of an elephant looks like a rock. If it weren’t for the eye and long lashes, you’d swear you were looking at something mineral, not animal. [The photo? It’s an elephant.]
The reality of what’s being viewed is the face of an elephant. The perception of it is to some extent directed by the photographer – but its meaning is always digested and interpreted by the viewer. Reality. Perception. What is objective truth and what is subjective interpretation?
This dynamic is not something we only encounter when looking at a photograph of an elephant, or a close-up of a flower. And it is not something we encounter merely daily. It is the very essence of how we take in everything we see. Every moment. We are constantly observing, filtering, and interpreting what we see. We add each new image to our ever-growing internal catalog.
The new image can help us understand something that we’ve already encountered. Or, we may see in the new image only what we expect – because of how we’ve already filtered and interpreted all those images that have come before it.
We filter all the information we receive – not just what we get visually.
Do we, for example, always hear what another says when we are in the midst of an argument? Isn’t our ability to be objective affected by our emotions? Our lack of objectivity doesn’t change the reality of what was said. Or does it? Is reality defined by some objective standard or by individual experience?
HOW we hear something is no less a part of reality than WHAT was actually said.
Our perception creates our reality.
Mark Twain is noted for his terse observations of the human condition. He said:
“Life does not consist mainly, or even largely, of facts and happenings. It consists mainly of the storm of thought that is forever flowing through one’s head.”
We live continually within our own perceptions. We can read or listen to the opinions and observations of others and try to understand their experience and perspective. But, even then, when we are focused, open-minded, and making an effort, we are still filtering that message. We can’t help but do so. We receive no “pure” information. Nothing gets into me without it being affected by me.
How many of us make bad decisions? I think it’s safe to say we all do.
How many of us CHOOSE to make bad decisions?
Do any of us, when faced with a choice, say “I really believe that I should do X” and then deliberately do the opposite? Setting those times aside when we simply don’t know the answer, and so we take our best guess – when we think that we are right about something, do we choose what we believe is wrong?
No. I don’t think so.
When we make a decision, we choose to act as we do because we believe we are right. In fact, don’t we very often KNOW that we’re right?
In the decision-making process, from inside this individual/very personal experience, it can be extremely difficult for us to see ourselves as wrong. For if we realized we were wrong, we’d make a different choice!! And so, we see ourselves as right. In fact, then, couldn’t we say that each one of us is always right?
Hmm. I wonder if this is related at all to the meaning of the word “self-righteous”?
You know, I consider myself to be an individual with pretty strong moral and social values. Like you, I have an internal compass that tells me right from wrong. I can quickly recognize when I – or someone else – have made an error. And I can be QUITE opinionated about that “someone else” and how WRONG they got it!
It’s been pointed out to me that my strong sense of right and wrong can give me a sense of self-righteous indignation when wronged or when witnessing something that I see as wrong. My personal sense of right-ness can make me critical and judgmental. Now that’s certainly behavior I would say is wrong. But – it stems from my sense of being so damn right! It’s a bit of a chicken and egg thing isn’t it?
Because we can only view the world through our own perceptions, we make judgments about all we encounter from that singular reality – “me”. If we each have this “me” filter through which we’re encountering reality, where is objectivity? What is truth?
For example: Many people view George W. Bush as arrogant and stubborn. Others see him as a man of strong values and unwavering conviction. Both of these observations can be valid – because each person’s reality is true. Every person is right.
A half-dozen years ago, when marriage equality found center stage of the public forum, I became very involved in all those rallies outside the State House. During them, I experienced a variety of strong emotions when I viewed the chanting crowd across the street – those who opposed marriage rights for same-sex couples. I felt anger, frustration, confusion, and even fear.
Anger. Because they don’t see how wrong they are and how right I am!
Frustration. Because if they simply LISTENED to me, they’d certainly see how right my position is!
Confusion. Because I really don’t get how anyone could hold such an unenlightened, closed-minded position!
Fear. What if they win? Well, they CAN’T! They’re WRONG! Cuz, I’M certainly not!
And, you know what? I bet every person across the street who was chanting “it’s Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve” felt anger, frustration, confusion and fear for the very same reasons.
Why? Because they’re right. What else could they be? Just like me, they’re RIGHT.
It was during this time-period I had a memorable one-on-one encounter. I was outside a polling place here in Watertown during an election – I had volunteered to talk with people about marriage equality. There was this one man – a hefty guy – really big – with longish hair, and ripped-off sleeves that showed his many tattoos. If I had to guess, I’d say he probably got to the polls on a Harley. I remember thinking, “well, this guy could be one extreme on the other – total counter-cultural liberal or total conservative evangelical.”
I started to talk with him. He was very pleasant and he listened patiently and respectfully. When I was done, I asked him if he would contact his state representative and senator in support of marriage rights, he said: “No. I won’t. It’s an abomination. Your agenda is an abomination. You’re disgusting and your agenda for children is disgusting.” He said all (and more!) this very calmly. Matter-of-factly. Looking me in the eyes and smiling as if he was giving me directions to the nearest Dunkin Donuts, rather than calling me a pervert to my face. His was such a strange mixture of, all at once, being totally respectful in how he patiently listened, and totally disrespectful in how he insulted me personally. It was an impressive feat!
Time seemed to slow for me. It was a being-in-a-car-wreck sorta moment. As I heard his words and watched him smile, I seethed inside. His words swirled in my head like a vortex building up a serious head of steam.
When he stopped talking, he stood there, he didn’t disengage and walk away after having his say, as you might expect. He waited for my response.
What I said to him is not as important as how I chose to respond. I calmly told him that I had no agenda for children and that what he said is totally offensive. I then said that it is clear that he is not going to convince me and I’m not going to convince him. So perhaps we should just end the conversation.
Then I did something that shocked me. I offered him my hand. He paused. Looked at it. Took it. Shook hands. And left without another word.
I share this story not because I think I got one up on him – but because I don’t.
I think, sitting here right now, we all can recognize how futile it would’ve been for the two of us to enter into a debate. It would’ve been an act of pure frustration. Yet, how often, when we encounter an opposing view point do we choose to disengage? How often, instead, do we make every effort to convince the other person of how right we are and how wrong they are?
What is it about our opinions that make us hold onto them as if our lives depended on it? What makes our opinions (and the desire to have others accept them as right) so very vital?
It may be that our opinions are the purest expression of ourselves – afterall, they are the product of all that filtered and processed input. These are our thoughts – our thoughts on the most critical of topics, afterall! Of course we hold them dear!
Politics. Religion. Taxes. Morality. Human Rights. The Environment.
We’re UUs, of COURSE we have strong opinions on these things!!!
There is a long-standing philosophical debate about the nature of reality and truth. Is there one objective truth? Or a subjective multiplicity? My intention here is not to get into an analysis of moral relativism – but to look at how each of our personal experiences impacts our openness to others and our ability to share genuinely.
Wouldn’t it be just be great if we were ALL UUs? The liberal, open-minded, I-accept-you-as-you-are religion?
How would that come about? I mean, wouldn’t we have to convert the world? OK, let’s start smaller – let’s just say… convert Watertown. As a parish, we’ve discussed this sort of thing in very real terms – how do we grow the parish, increase our numbers?
How would we do it? Would we reach out to people to convince them of the right-ness of our religion? How different would that be from evangelicals of any faith who are convinced of their righteousness?
Maybe that’s why we don’t see UUs proselytizing door-to-door. Or why we don’t find copies of Thoreau’s “Walden” in the night stands of every hotel. Proselytizing just isn’t part of our make-up.
But that’s not for lack of conviction! Have you ever witnessed a UU in a debate about politics or taking a stand on human rights? Or maybe I should say, have you ever BEEN the UU in a debate about politics or taking a stand on human rights!
In taking a position, in expressing our opinion, we are putting ourselves out there. We make ourselves a bit vulnerable. By sharing our position, we open it to scrutiny and to the possibility of learning the right-ness of the other’s position. By entering into a discourse, we invite in the possibility of being wrong. As long as we live within our own little experiential eco-system, we are always right. When we try to carry that “right-ness” out into the world, it is up for challenge, for we bump into the right-ness of others.
When I encounter an opposing point of view, how do I meet it? With feet fixed firmly in place or with ears open and brain on “receive”?
How open am I – really – to being wrong on those things of substance?
Politics. Religion. Taxes. Morality. Human Rights. The Environment.
And how open are others who do not share my point of view? Probably about as open (or closed) as I am.
Where does this leave us then? How will we ever get all of Watertown – let alone the whole world – to join the right-ness of UUism? Leave behind those false gods and accept the truth of pluralism!
Whether we are talking about winning over the world to UUism, or about something more urbane, such as, what the new chairs for the sanctuary will look like – pressing a point, pushing an agenda, holding an immoveable position will certainly not win over the audience.
But, of course, my point is not about converting people to UUism. I use that only to pose a more individual question: even when I embrace open-mindedness, how do I move beyond merely recognizing the multiplicity of opinions and life choices – and move beyond that to a greater personal challenge: recognizing that it is not my responsibility to make sure the rest of the world is right.
That man I encountered outside the polling place – as breath-taking as his opinion’s of homosexuality were, and as numbing as his accusations were, I walked away from that encounter feeling satisfied and secure. I actually respected him. As much as his viewpoint repulsed me, I respected his ability to honestly and fearlessly share, and his willingness to listen to me.
What I liked most, though, was the willingness on both our parts to walk away and let the other believe he was right.
There is no more destructive force in human affairs — not greed, not hatred — than the desire to be right. Non-attachment to possessions is trivial when compared with non-attachment to opinions.
– Mark Kleiman
Professor of Public Policy at the UCLA School of Public Affairs
Author on subjects related to Personal Development
You’re a human and so am I. There’s no argument there. The sky is blue and the grass is green. There’s no argument there either. After all, these are FACTS, and we’re all in agreement with them. But why do so many of us have a need to be ‘right’ regarding OPINIONS?
A man driving in LA is outraged by another driver cutting him off. In his opinion, the driver who cut him off is unbearably rude. “I’ll show him,” he thinks, as he now tries to cut off the ‘rude’ driver. This incident explodes into a full-blown case of road rage, which leads to an accident and the death of the outraged driver. He might have been ‘right,’ but now he’s dead right.
An obsessive need to be ‘right’ is irrational, but, sadly, very common. For instance, what makes one believe that our neighbors are incompetent to think for themselves and need to be ‘saved’ by our own brand of religion?
Some of us get easily upset in the workplace. We insist that others do things the ‘right’ (our) way. Yet, isn’t it more important to do the right thing than do things right?
When I insist that I’m ‘right,’ I slam the door of my mind. I remain locked in past beliefs. I stop growing. I have a shallow understanding of the world and limited choice. But if I change my focus from what is RIGHT to what IS, something magical happens. The moment I accept the fact that others have different views and willingly consider them, rather than fight them, I am transformed. Transformed from a prisoner to an adventurer and explorer. …
(Why is being right so important to us)? One reason is the discomfort of uncertainty. Living in a world of uncertainty makes some feel like the earth is crumbling beneath their feet. There is no stability, nothing to hang on to (except their own opinions and beliefs). Yet, when we change our perspective and think of uncertainty as surprise, wonder, awe, growth, opportunity, and delight, we can embrace it.