There are few if any absolutes in life. Rather there are individual interpretations and perceptions of just about everything. Given any situation viewed by ten people there are likely to be ten different interpretations of that event or situation. The situation is the same, but the perceptions and reactions to it will differ.
The 20th Century French writer Anaïs Nin captured this concept in her quote, “We do not see things as they are, we see things as we are.”
This means that each of us bring with us all of our past experiences, our beliefs, our prejudices and our fears to every life situation and we interpret all things through the filter of ourselves. So our world is not as simple as we may think.
To illustrate this concept let’s take three imaginary people and call them, John, Mike, and Nancy. Like any three people they have very different backgrounds, beliefs, and life experiences. Let’s place these three individuals on a highly traveled street in a large city where a homeless man is sitting on the ground looking very unkempt and holding a tin cup asking for money.
John comes by and sees the man sitting on the ground and is immediately outraged. John despises the idea of homeless people living on the clean streets of his city. He sees the man not only as lazy, but as a nuisance and a freeloader. John is also concerned about the effect that “the homeless” will have on property values. Needless to say John does not drop any money into the man’s cup, but simply walks by in a huff.
Next Mike comes down the street and encounters the same homeless man in exactly the same circumstances. Mike immediately begins to dig into his pocket looking for some loose change. Mike is saddened by the site of the unfortunate man and he is nearly moved to tears. Mike approaches the man and not only drops a handful of change into his cup but he also offers a few words and wishes the man well.
Finally Nancy walks down this same street and sees the homeless man sitting on the ground. Nancyhowever stops before ever reaching the man. Her heart begins to pound and her palms get sweaty. Nancydecides to cross the street so as to avoid coming into contact with the homeless man.
So here we have one situation, a homeless man sitting on the pavement begging for money, but we have three very different reactions. These three reactions to the same situation are based on the past experiences, fears, and beliefs of each of the three individuals (John, Mike, and Nancy).
As it turns out John tends to be a self-interested, materialistic individual. He grew up in hard-working family that valued money and a strong work ethic. They didn’t care too much about charity and helping others. For John’ and his family charity always began at home. John’s neighborhood and how others view it means a lot to him.
Mike has always been a caring compassionate individual. He has first hand experience with a family member who came back from Vietnamand was forced to live on the street. He knows that being homeless doesn’t always mean being lazy, it may be the result of mental illness, loss of a job, or the after effects of spending time in a war zone.
As for Nancy, she was once grabbed by a man on a city street, robbed, and sexually assaulted. It has taken her years to recover and be able to function again.
“We look at situations, events, and interpret what other people say and do, according to our own set of past experiences, culture, faith, values, all of which help us form our beliefs about ourselves, about others, and about the world in general. The meaning we give events, the way we make sense of our world, is based upon our own set of core beliefs. “ – Carol Vivyan
So we will always see others and the world around us through the filter of our past experiences and beliefs. We can learn a great deal about ourselves by the way we perceive and react to others.
If we are anxious we will be apprehensive of others.
If we are courageous we will be bold.
If we are suspicious we will doubt others.
If we are easy-going we will be tolerant of others.
If we are easily annoyed we will find others to be irritating.
It is not so much who or what others are, as much as who we are. All of life is like a pane of glass, reflecting back to us who we are.
Source material: Anaïs Nin, Carol Vivyan, Wikipedia