The dangers of perception

Thursday, August 30, 2018
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This and That

Today I saw a t shirt that spoke truth to the question, “What is perception?” The shirt had an historic photo of Cochise and four Apache warriors. The caption read, “Fighting terrorism since 1492.” Absolute truth. Right or wrong?

The older I get the more I become aware of the dangers inherent in my perception of events and life around me. Perception is how you see something and whether you perceive it as dangerous, safe or loving or threatening. Your perception is based on your personal history, how you were raised, how you were treated by the adults around you. Was it a safe environment or one in which you never knew what to expect. Perhaps life was always a question.

I am often amazed at family perceptions. My mother was the youngest of five. Her oldest sister was fifteen years older. The memories she shared of her parents were much different than the memories my mother had as the youngest, “the baby” of the family. After raising four older children my grandparents raised my mother in a much different way. She always said, “My oldest sister and I had different parents.”

Occasionally my brother and I share memories and sometimes I am dumfounded that we are discussing our presence at the same events. What I perceived and what he perceived were two entirely different scenarios.

We see this most vividly these days in society when a black man or woman sitting and waiting for a friend is perceived by the white waitress or shop keeper as dangerous or a threat. I have read that black parents raise their sons particularly to be aware of the perceptions of the white people around them. A hood pulled up, a pair of dark glasses while only a mode of dress is seen by others as something fearful.

When I was teaching at the high school years ago we had an exchange student from Germany. He had read a book on World War I and came to me asking why what he had learned in his school in Germany was so different from what was taught in U.S. schools. Sadly, I had to tell him, “The victors write the history.”

To only see a happening through the eyes of a single opinion is narrow-minded and parochial. To live in our multi-cultural society we have to see with new eyes — we have to have a new way of visioning in our world. Another time at the high school we had a student from Japan. When the teacher was done presenting the lesson, he would lay his head on his desk and sleep. Having visited schools in Japan I had seen this action in most classrooms and knew it as just a reaction to the end of the lesson for today. It didn’t mean disrespect. It simply meant the students had “turned off” for the day.

To travel in non-Western countries you must be totally alert to customs and behaviors of those around you. Watching the news you will see a female news reporter with a scarf over her head when reporting from a Muslim country. To those natives, it is a sign of disrespect for a woman to go uncovered. Reporters have learned that to get the story, they must present themselves so they are perceived as respectful in a country not their own and thus non-threatening.

Life is never going to align with my perceptions. To listen to racists and bigots and accept their way as truth shows ignorance, just as my perceptions of you have no knowledge of your background, of what you have been through in this life. An open mind to everything around us is vital to the peace of the world. Each one of us is not the be all or the end of all of what is right and good. Truth needs to be held up to the light of reason, that is varying perceptions. We must be openminded and realize we filter everything through the lens of our own history. To be a citizen of the world requires open eyes and open ears and an open heart.

Avis Anderson is a retired pastor of Zion Lutheran Church in Glendive. Her online blog can be found at