Perception and Injustice
The eastern Ozarks of Arkansas are not quite as grand as those to the west. Here the Ozark Mountains begin to roll gradually into the Mississippi delta. There are still lakes and lush forests and plenty of rocks of almost every type. However, there are more flat pastures better suited to growing things like cotton, corn and hay.
When I was a child, my grandparents still raised cotton, and some of my earliest memories are of working in the cotton fields. There was no such thing as child labor law on the farm. Once you were old enough to work without messing it up, you went to work. However, when I was very young, old enough to play without supervision, but still too young to wield a hoe, I was sent off to the edge of the pasture to play while my grandparents worked in the fields. It was on one of those days that I learned my first lesson about perception.
On the other side of the fence, at the edge of the cotton field, Grandpa had junked a very old hay rake. Practically every inch of it was covered in rust and it no longer served a useful purpose other than scrap. The thing would have been pulled, in its time, by a team of horses. The wheels had once been shinny steel with knobs welded into them so they would have traction, and wouldn’t merely spin in the grass. On the back of the rake was a span from wheel to wheel filled with metal tines. Side by side, each one curved into a half circle. When the tines were dropped into the mowed hay, they curled it into tubes that were later stacked by pitch fork. In the center was a rusted metal seat. Beside the seat were levers that once controlled the tines. At the front, a long wooden tongue was bolted into the metal. The horses would have been hitched on either side of that tongue to pull the rake.
While Grandma and Grandpa hoed cotton, I played on the hay rake. I sat in the seat, pulled on the levers and pretended whatever it was I was pretending. I was playfully contenting myself when I looked down to see a snake crawling up the tongue of the rake. Terrified, I jumped off the side, over the wheel and through the fence. I went running into the cotton field shouting, “Snake! Snake!”
Both grandparents immediately stopped what they were doing, and asked where I had seen a snake. Grandma was never one to let any snake go without killing it. She didn’t care what kind it was. If it was not poisonous, then it still might eat her chicks or swallow eggs from a hen’s nest. So she had no use for them. Hoe at ready, she would of course, come to kill it.
When I led them to the hay rake, Grandma asked, “Where did you see the snake?”
“It’s right there!” I said, pointing at the snake that was still coiling along the tongue of the rake.
“Where?” Grandma asked again.
“There! Right there!” I pointed. “Don’t you see it?”
“Right there?” Grandma asked as she pointed at the same snake I was pointing at.
“Yes! That’s it!” I replied. “Aren’t you going to kill it?”
Grandma placed her hand on my shoulder. “Honey, that’s just an old belt your grandpa wrapped around the tongue to keep those two pieces together.”
Suddenly my perception shifted. What I had seen as a living, coiling, moving snake turned into an inanimate object right before my eyes. I had perceived the buckle of the belt as the snake’s head, and the leather as the snake’s body. I felt embarrassed as I looked at what was obviously an old worn out belt, too worn to adorn, but not so worn as to remain useful.
My grandparents had learned from hard childhoods, and raising their own children during the Great Depression to never let anything go to waste. As long as anything still had a use, in any way, it was never discarded. Grandpa would even save rusty bent nails, place them on the concrete and tap out the bent part with a hammer so the nail could be reused. The belt on the rake tongue was no exception. It merely transitioned from the function of holding up someone’s pants to the function of holding a couple of pieces together on the wooden tongue of the hay rake. Only my illusion had made it seem like something else.
This was one of my earliest lessons in recognizing that what I think, and what actually is the truth can be two entirely different things. Perception is never fact, but as human beings, we tend to behave as though our perception is fact. Our conflicts never come over arguments about truth because truth is that which is irrefutable. It can neither be denied nor argued, although we often argue about our perception of truth. Arguments are always about perception or belief. Truth offers no argument because there is no denying that it is what it is. However, perception is an entirely different thing. It is a construct, purely of the mind, yet it can be very powerful. On that day when I was about six years old, my perception literally caused me to hallucinate that an old belt was actually a living snake. It was only when someone revealed the fact to me, and I was willing to listen, that I saw the truth instead of my illusion.
Here is a fact. Every one of us will misperceive or hallucinate something every day of our lives. None of us sees the world the way it actually is. We see our world through the veil of our own perception. What we call reality is merely that which we all agree upon. Regardless of our shared concept of reality, whatever we look upon is altered by our own mind to fit within the framework of our beliefs, fears and judgments. It is only by considering that there is another way of looking at something that we are ever able to see anything differently. Only by recognizing that we experience perception are we able to see the truth. Those who don’t realize that they see the world through their own perception are lost to their illusions. Those who realize that what they see is illusion formed by perception are able to learn how to see beyond perception.
In order to truly see, two things are required. First, I must be willing to realize that my perception can be incorrect. Second, I must be willing to consider that the other person’s perception could be closer to the truth. If I am willing to make an effort to see the world from the other person’s point of view, then I will better be able to have a more accurate interpretation of my own point of view. If we each argue only our own point of view without considering the other, then conflict is inevitable. We may look at the exact same thing but see it differently.—Hold a coin flat between yourself and another person and ask them what they see. They see the view of the coin that you cannot see. Each one of you sees a different view, but you are both looking at the same coin. One see’s heads, and one sees tails. Neither view is exactly incorrect, and neither is exactly correct. The only way to see what the other person sees is to turn the coin around and look at it from their point of view. Understanding that another person may see the exact same thing in a different way is an opening into awareness.
Conflict is the result of our ego’s insistence that others must see the world the same way we see it, and that only our way of seeing can be correct. It is a demand that others acquiesce to our point of view rather than a willingness to consider theirs. All conflict results from this selfishness. When Shakespeare said, “All the world is a stage and the people merely players.” he forgot to mention that we all want to be the director. However, he was right about the fact that we are all players. We rehearse our lives, and this rehearsal is part of what creates and maintains our perceptions. One of the laws of mind is that we are most likely to act what we rehearse regularly in our thinking. We are most likely to see what we repeatedly train ourselves to see. This may have started through our learning in childhood, but it continues through our ongoing internal rehearsal.
It was enlightening for me when I came to understand that I do not have to maintain the legacy of my ancestors, or others who influenced, or manipulated me. They may have gotten it wrong. They may have suffered emotional wounds, rehearsed perceptions based on those wounds, and may have passed those rehearsals on to me. Small children believe what they are taught. They do not have the cognitive development to question the teaching that comes through what others say to them, and how others treat them. However, children also draw conclusions based on experiences from childhood, and then develop belief systems based on those conclusions. Once a belief is set in place, it can be a very powerful thing, so strong that it seems impossible to see the world a different way. Our ego ferociously defends what we believe. Whatever fits with the belief, it accepts. Whatever does not fit with the belief, it argues and rejects. Often we do not see things as they actually are until we are in crisis. At that time, our illusions shatter against the wall of reality, and it can be a very painful process.
When I first recognized that I can choose to see the world differently, it was an important experience for me. Not only did my world change, but my personality changed. My demeanor changed. I went from being a shy, self-conscious, and angry young man to becoming a person who can love and affirm himself, as well as offer that same love and affirmation to others. This transformation did not come in an instant, but came over many years of actively rehearsing the character I wanted to create. It came through trial and error and through recognizing the cause and effect of thinking. Not only does thought affect how I feel, it affects how others relate to me and it affects how I commune with the world in general. It was an extremely enlightening process when I came to realize that the world literally gives back to me what I send forth. This does not mean that everyone treats me with respect all the time, or that I am always positive. Although I try, I don’t yet perfectly practice what I intend. Yet I know I reap from the world what I sew in my thoughts, because my thoughts create the expressions on my face, the choices I make, and the actions take. When those thoughts are more consistently life affirming, so is my experience.
When I realized that we each carry our own perceptions, based on our own beliefs, and our own internal rehearsals, I was able to understand that another person’s behavior, no matter what it is, even if it is directed at me, is never about me. It is always about what is going on inside that person. It is always about that person’s beliefs, perceptions, judgments and agenda. When I understand that another person’s behavior is never about me, then how I react to, or relate to that person automatically changes. Defensiveness can be laid aside. No matter what the judgment, I cannot be what the other person judges me to be. I can only be who I am. I cannot be another person’s interpretation of me, I can only be my interpretation of myself. Even then, if directed by ego, my interpretation of myself will be incorrect. Yet, I am always responsible for the choices I make, and I must consider that another person’s interpretation of me could have some truth in it. I am always responsible for what I rehearse in my own head, and I choose how much attention I wish to pay to another person’s interpretation of me. My behavior is about what is going on inside of me at the point in time in which it manifests. It may be possible that someone else will recognize what I am rehearsing before I realize it myself. Therefore, it is important to listen to, and consider another person’s interpretation, so long as it is not abusive, demeaning or disrespectful. If that occurs, it is important to keep in mind that we all have the same value as human beings regardless of how others treat us. Our worth is never diminished by anyone’s behavior, nor is it diminished by our own. You can throw a diamond in the trash, but it does not change the value of the diamond.
We are all treated with disrespect and dishonor at some point in our lives. We are all perceived as snakes by someone, somewhere, some time. We may have grown up being treated with abuse and disrespect. If so, we may have developed perceptions of the world based on discounting and devaluing ourselves. If we continue to accept disrespect from others, it is because we have developed the belief that it is what we deserve. Having been victimized, we may see the world from the role of a victim. We may not realize that we don’t have to continue through life in the roles that were assigned to us. Freedom comes in the recognition that our childhood or other experiences did not create us. We continue to create ourselves. The world does not create us. We interact with the world based on what we create within ourselves. If we blame the world, and see ourselves as victims of the injustices that have been done to us, then we are rehearsing the role of victim. If we don’t want to be victims, then we have to stop thinking like victims, and stop acting like victims. It is a difficult lesson to learn that we do not have to become a victim regardless of how ruthlessly another person may treat us.
The truth is, everyone suffers injustice in some form, at some point in their lives. Some seem to suffer greater injustices than others, but if injustice makes us victims, then we are all victims. If we use having been victimized to justify being unjust to others, then we become victimizers. A victim and a victimizer are one and the same. It is impossible to be unjust to others without first having perceived ourselves as a victim, and then having justified a reason to return the attack, even if it is only a fantasy that we never physically carry out. The subconscious mind does not know the difference. When we contemplate attack, we switch from the role of victim to victimizer. It is impossible to be a victim of others without having first perceived them as victimizers. Even when someone attacks us, they only become a victimizer to us when we mentally place them in that role, and place ourselves mentally in the role of victim. This insane and circular perception keeps the world locked in wars, street fights, abuse and brutality.
Until we become willing to see the world a different way, then it will manifest the way it has continued to manifest. Until we become willing to recognize that we each have the power and responsibility to change ourselves, our experience of the world will remain the same. Therefore, we can only change the world by first changing ourselves. We cannot wait for someone else to change first, for what if that person never sees past perception? What if that person never makes the effort to change? Then the world remains stuck in the insane cycle of victim and victimizer. Our responsibility to the world is therefore our responsibility to ourselves and our responsibility to ourselves is our responsibility to the world. There are lyrics to an old song, “Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.” The truth is, there can no other way for peace on earth to occur, because how insane is this statement? “Let’s stop retaliating. You go first.” If I am not willing to be the one who goes first, then peace remains an impossibility.
If we do take responsibility to manage our thinking and behavior, and we look beyond perception, the world is not going to instantly change, but each person who accepts the responsibility to change from within will begin to see differences in how they feel, and how they interact with the world, as well as how they experience others who share the world. Every person who takes the responsibility to relinquish the role of victim becomes part of the ultimate process, and each one becomes a drop of water that collectively wears away the stone of injustice.
Can we still suffer injustice even if we have chosen to give up victimization? Of course we can. It is how we interpret it, and how we deal with it that matters. The question becomes, what would the world be like if each one of us adopted this one simple goal? “Relinquish all malicious intent.” What could the world become if we stopped making excuses for our malicious thoughts, however benign we judge them to be, and simply elected to focus our intent on eliminating those thoughts regardless of initial anger over feeling unfairly treated? Take just a moment to imagine that.
Is it possible to have a world with no malice? Yes, but only if we cease to justify malice within ourselves. The world can only change from anguish to peace if we individually commit, and refuse to rehearse the role of victim or victimizer.
Since the only power that any human being possesses is the power to choose what we will think, say or do at any given moment, then I cannot determine whether another person will make the choice to eliminate internal malice. Each one of us has the spiritual right to choose whatever it is we choose, and none of us has the right to determine another’s choice. In fact, it is impossible. I can only determine whether I will commit myself to giving up malice. If the other person chooses to maintain malice, it is their right to do so because choice is the only gift of life that we all share equally, and we all share an equal right to it. Since nobody gets it all right all the time, I may struggle at eliminating malice from my thinking, especially at first. It may take a very long time to get good at it. In fact, I do not yet personally consider myself anywhere near the top of the class. I may make mistakes and slip back into the role of victim, but the more I practice, the better I will become at clearing away malicious intent. The more I clear away malicious intent within myself, the more others will feel invited to do the same. I don’t have to proselytize or convince, I only need to practice, and through that practice will the invitation be sent. It is important that I not expect perfection, for perfectionism is internal criticism, and is, therefore, a form of malice toward myself. Instead, I only need to remind myself of the goal I have chosen, and like learning to ride a bicycle, get back on it again, and again. In time, I will begin to act what I rehearse. I will then begin to perceive the world in a different way. Veil after veil of my illusions will begin to lift, and I may yet realize that what I thought was danger and evil, is no more a threat to ultimate reality than an old belt wrapped around a piece of wood on an antiquated rake.