“Preposterous,” exclaimed the second blind man, who was feeling around the leg of the animal. “This is sturdy and immovable, firmly planted in the ground so as to resist any strong wind. It must be a tree.”
The third blind man laughed, scoffingly. “You are both mad,” he said as he held the end of the elephant’s tail, stroking the thick hairs. “Why this is nothing more than a mouse.”
While amusing, the tale of the three blind men demonstrates the difference between truth and perspective. In life, we often confuse perception with reality. Just as the three blind men relied on their limited sensory perception of the elephant to determine what it was, we utilize our limited observations of life to formulate a picture or perspective of truth. This can lead to some amusing contradictions, and some not so amusing confrontations.
Some become so resolute that their perspective is the truth that they are willing to fight and contend over it. But what they are defending is not truth, it is their own perspective. Truth requires no defense. It stands on its own. All that is needed is further experience with it. I imagine that had the blind men taken the time to thoroughly inspect the elephant, they would have eventually come to the realization that they were all experiencing the same animal and could put together a fairly good depiction of it. The same is not as easily settled with truth.
There is a well-known parable of three traveling blind men, who come across an elephant blocking their way. The three men, eager to see what this obstacle was, began to run their hands over different parts of the elephant. One man grasps at the trunk. Feeling its long bumpy exterior that coiled around his arm, the man declared, “This is obviously some sort of snake.”
Truth requires a lifetime of experience, and even then it’s full circumference cannot be explored. Unlike the elephant, truth is vast and we are even more poorly equipped to understand it than the blind men. Still, the pursuit of truth does provide gems of understanding and wisdom that are beneficial. Science, which pursues the truth of the universe, has made great innovations, even though it is no closer to a full description of it than when humanity first set out to understand it. Likewise, if we choose to seek out truth in life, we will find a treasure trove of discoveries from those of the past and those of today. Perhaps the greatest gems are those found within the course of our own life.
Unfortunately, there is a trend in our modern world that has arisen because of this misunderstanding between perspective and truth. It suggests that because there is so much confusion over truth, that truth either doesn’t exist or cannot be known. Therefore, we needn’t bother with it. It professes that whatever we decide to be true is true. This is absurd thinking. It would put forth the assumption that because the blind men could not agree on the elephant, the elephant simply doesn’t exist. Of course the elephant exists. And if the blind men worked together, they may come to a clearer picture of it. The confusion came when they concluded that their perception of the elephant was the elephant. Likewise, when we mistake our perception of truth as truth, our thinking becomes myopic and we exclude further experience with the truth that may bring us a greater understanding of it.
Our thoughts and feelings seem real to us, so we conclude that they must be true. While it is true that we experience feelings, we do not have to identify ourselves by our emotions. Emotions such as anxiety, fear, anger, or hatred are just reactions to our experience, which is heavily influenced by our perception. This is most common with phobias, where real emotional responses are connected to unrealistic fears. No one argues that the fear that these individuals experience is real, but such hysteria toward seemingly innocuous things, such as clowns or spiders, is merely a condition of the mind.
Another example is the puppy love that is often experienced by young teenagers. It seems absurd to adults who have a more mature understanding of love and relationships. But to the teenagers, the feelings are quite real. It is important when working with people who have seemingly absurd feelings toward things, that we do not undermine their emotions, but instead focus on where the root of these feelings lie. Similarly, when dealing with our own emotions, we must be honest about what sparks those feelings.
In some cases, the emotions we feel after the event are worse than the emotions experienced during the event. This is because we allow the emotions to fester and grow. While someone may have wronged us and left us in the gutter, it is our choice to remain there. The truth is that the same power is given to us to claim victimhood or victory. The choice is always ours to make. Depending on which one we choose, will determine our perspective in life.
If you look back through your memories, you will find some memories are more vivid and real than others. Some experiences of our day to day life slip through like sand through a sieve. They never really form into a solid memory. However, others appear to stick, adhering themselves to a particular idea. A person who sees themselves as a victim can look back on their experiences and immediately recall the many instances where they were treated badly or victimized, but would struggle to find those small acts of kindness or instances where they rose above their victimhood.
In Victor Hugo’s epic novel, Les Miserables, the main character, Jean Valjean, has a similar perception of the world that begins to formulate after he is arrested for stealing a loaf of bread. He recognizes at first that stealing the bread was wrong and his punishment is just. But after severe treatment at the hands of his jailers and the unjust addition of multiple years to his sentence, he begins to see himself as a victim of an unjust system. This perception follows him to the outside world. He sees more evidence of this reality when no one will allow him a place to stay, because he is a convict.
Tired and hungry, he is finally found by a kindly bishop that takes him in. Instead of seeing the kindness of the bishop as counter evidence, Valjean merely sees an opportunity to take advantage. Afterall, that is the way of the world that he perceives. In the night, he steals a set of finely crafted silver dinnerware, knowing he could sell it for a fine price. In his haste, he is captured by the police and brought back to the bishop to answer for his crime. But instead of condemning him, the bishop offers the candlesticks that were left behind.
This stark contradiction to the narrative that Valjean had of the world causes him to question his perception. Eventually, he forms a new perception around this solemn act of the bishop’s mercy. His experiences moving forward are influenced by this new perception, as more acts of kindness follow, changing him into a better man. The world did not change for Valjean, but by changing his focus, those experiences that reflected his new perception became more clear, gravitating together into a new worldview, one of mercy and love, instead of injustice and hatred.
We may never be able to have a perfect perception of reality, but we can strive to have a clear perception of truth. The first step is recognizing that what we see as reality is merely what we have chosen to perceive. This is an empowering principle. We no longer need to be a slave to the thoughts and emotions that make up our perceived reality, we can choose those thoughts and emotions that will be conducive to a fulfilling and happy life.
While we form our perceptions from experience, we also attach meaning to those experiences. Just as the blind men attached false meanings to the experiences they had with the elephant, we can attach false meanings to our experiences in life. By false, I am referring not only to factually incorrect assumptions, but also destructive ideas.
For example, someone might see failures in life as a recognition that they are a failure. This is not only a factually false idea, but is also destructive, because it leads to a belief that prevents the individual from ever succeeding. A successful person perceives failure as a necessary step towards their eventual success. Without failures they could not learn what they need to be successful. This perception is both factually correct and conducive to a positive outcome.
Perceptions will form, whether we choose them or not. It is a natural process of the brain. It is like asking a four year old how they are able to grow. It just happens. Just as our body has a natural way of growing new cells, we have ways of making sure that positive perceptions can grow that are close to reality. And just as the body has a way to rid itself of cells that are damaged and harmful to the body, we have ways of ridding ourselves of those perceptions that are not correct and not conducive to our well being. The key is to be aware of our perceptions and where they come from.
While each of the blind men had valid experience with the elephant, their assumptions based on their experience was clearly false. In order to get a better understanding of truth, they would be wise to try and understand the perspectives of the other blind men. I don’t believe that the seeking of truth is meant to be a singular job. Alone, we are susceptible to personal bias and cannot fully grasp truth. But with the help of others, we can begin to see beyond our own biases and come to greater realizations.
How we view things is one of 6.7 billion different ways of looking at things. We want to learn to look at things from other people’s perspective, because it is only then that we become effective at understanding others. We don’t need to understand all 6.7 billion people, we simply need to understand the people in front of us.
We commonly mistake how we understand things for how things really are (in truth). We need to be able to separate our own experience of life in order to listen and understand other’s experience. In order to fully understand another’s perspective, we need to first listen without judgement or comparison with our own perspective. Once we understand their perspective clearly, we can then compare it to our own.
Imagine you are climbing a mountain with a friend. You start on one side, while your friend takes the path on the other side of the mountain. You’re able to communicate with each other via long wave radio and describe the scenery around you. However, what your friend sees is vastly different than what you see.
You see clear planes with grassy gnolls and flowered meadows, while they see a dense forest. Each of you are having a different experience with the mountain. You may argue over which direction to take in your individual paths. They might feel that your path is leading the wrong way because it differs from their own. You might feel that they are just making up their experience because yours is so vastly different. In time you both might become agitated with each other, arguing over who’s right and who’s wrong.
Life is very much like this scenario. Each of us are having our own unique experiences. While there may be certain principles that are universal, how they are applied in each situation may differ. It’s not that one person’s reality is true and the other’s is not, it’s that our perception of that reality differs based on the experience we are having with it. Perception is the lens through which we view our reality.
Just because our perceptions differ, doesn’t mean that we cannot benefit from the other person’s perspective. In the scenario, both hikers had a different perception of the mountain based on their experience with it. Both were very real and it’s only when the two perceptions of the mountain are compared that a more complete view of the mountain can be understood.
Our perspective is uniquely ours—it’s just one of many. When we come together and share our unique perspectives, we can gain a greater understanding of ourselves and of the world around us.