“It’s not what we don’t know that’s the problem, it’s what we know that ain’t so.”
– Mark Twain
All of us know people whose convictions blind them to the truth. What they believe actually determines what they see, and what they experience. Conversely, when we are able to relax our beliefs, what we see can change.
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In considering this perceptual phenomenon, the ideal introduction is to question that famous statement attributed to character Joe Friday on the popular 50’s TV series, Dragnet: “Just the facts, ma’am.” Millions of us believe he said that. In fact, this catchphrase originated with a parody of Dragnet authored by Stan Freberg.
Similarly, “Play it again, Sam.” is one of the best known misquotes in film history. Humphrey Bogart’s character never said it and neither did Ingrid Bergman. Close (“Play it, Sam.”), but no cigar. Yet, it’s likely that millions of movie goers would swear differently.
This calls to mind Senator Daniel Moynihan’s comment, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.” Misremembering movie dialogue is relatively harmless, but when it comes to misinterpreting reality, seeing what you believe becomes dangerous. And here in the twentieth century, this perceptual impediment is serious enough to threaten our very survival as a species that may go down in history as fundamentally delusional.
The epic song, Amazing Grace, features a line that may be one of the most often sung in the western world of popular music: “I was blind, but now I see.” This simple statement articulates the possibility of seeing anew, of shedding belief blinders to perceive less opinion and more fact. Most of us have probably had many such “Aha!” moments, a sudden collapse of certainty as new vision emerges. It’s wonderful, seeing the world in a new way. Or, seeing another person in a new way… or how about oneself? Letting go of pre-conceptions, opening to novelty, seeing what’s been obscured (and that, once seen, is so obvious you wonder how you didn’t always see it), is a liberating experience.
The problem is that it doesn’t take long before new vision becomes restrictive prejudice. The once novel becomes conventional and further revelations are denied. “I was blind, but now I see.” OK, what do we see now? And, are we open to seeing differently again and again?
In her 1995 essay, The Skill of Ecological Perception, Harvard lecturer Laura Sewall writes about her faith in the power of altered perception to reawaken our caring relationship with the world, and perhaps even save us: “We begin to care for that which we see and ideally, we find ourselves loving the material world, our Earth. Because love alters behavior, honoring sensory and sensual experience may be fundamental to the preservation of the Earth.” 1
Love altars behavior. Actually, Dr. Sewall articulates three steps: perception, consciousness, and behavior. What we perceive either supports or shifts our state of consciousness and then supports ingrained behavior or encourages a change. In today’s world of chronic delusion relative to our destructive influence on the natural environment, here’s a novel “solution” that departs from desperate attempts to “save the world.” Help comes from seeing differently and it’s love that altars behavior, not mentally determined strategies, those New Year’s Resolutions for the earth that never last.
Like many love songs, Looking Through the Eyes of Love (first recorded by Gene Pitney in 1965), becomes inspiring when the object of affection is changed from the girl next door to our planet. For instance, have that in mind as you read these last few lines from the song: “Reaching out to touch you, I can feel so much. Since I’ve found you, lookin’ through the eyes of love.” 2
Seeing the world anew, looking at this planetary home through the eyes of love, can change everything. As Czech philosopher and writer Erazim Kohak wrote, “Set aside the learned ways of perceiving the world as dead matter for your use and see if you can recover again your actual perception of the world as a community of beings to whom you are meaningfully related.” 3
Herein may be our best hope for survival, an unlikely solution to environmental devastation caused by our mis-perception of the world as “dead matter.” In blogs to come we’ll explore the role that love plays in shifting perception and simple steps we can take to expand our awareness, change consciousness, and alter our behaviors.
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1. Laura Sewall, The Skill of Ecological Perception, from Ecopsychology, Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind, page 203
3. Laura Sewall, The Skill of Ecological Perception, from Ecopsychology, Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind, page 201