We all like to think that the world we see around us is the one that everyone else sees, but that is not the case.
While there are areas we cannot dispute, such as the physical landscape around us, there is another aspect of reality that is very subjective.
That is how we interpret what we see. We may all see a tree, but we may look at it in different ways. For some, it may be a glorious example of mother nature, while for others it is a nuisance that needs to be chopped down.
Just because we all agree that something exists does not mean that we agree on what it means. Reality is subjective. That is why we have various political parties and religions, there is no one defined way of seeing the world.
It very much depends on the person. The world is a canvas, we take inspiration from it and each of us draws our own pictures throughout our lives.
There are those of us who see the world through rose-tinted glasses and paint a beautiful image of a world basked in sunshine, while there are others who are more gloomy in their outlook and portray a world in darkness.
Reality does not really exist. It is simply our interpretation of the events and landscape that occur in our sphere of influence. Nevertheless, how we view the world is important.
It will direct how we lead our lives, how we interact with one another and how we see society as a whole. These views can either be constructive or destructive. It’s important we carefully consider the reality we exist in. We all have the power to change the lens through which we view the world, it’s doing so that’s the hard part.
Judgements Shape Reality
It was the Greek philosopher, Epictetus, who said: “It’s not things that upset us but rather our opinions about things.” What he is saying here is that it is our perspective on events that cause us to become agitated, rather than the vents themselves.
Think of when you were younger and you were told off by your parents or a teacher. From your perspective, this telling off may have been unwarranted and unfair. You may have sulked for the rest of the day, mad at the injustice you feel went against you.
However, if you look back at that same event now, or try to look at it from your parent’s or teacher’s perspective, your judgement may alter. Gone is the belief that you were wronged and a realisation that your elders were acting in your best interest instead.
The lens through which we view the world is important because it affects everything in our life. It affects our values, it affects our interactions with each other, and it affects our wellbeing too.
Imagine you are handed a pair of glasses that distort your vision. Instead of perceiving the world in the crystal clear vision you are accustomed to, the world now appears to have a tinge of red.
No matter where you look, there is this red hue everywhere. Once you take the glasses off, your vision returns to normal and the red coating around you disappears. This is what life is like.
We are all wearing a pair of glasses, but we just don’t realise it. How we react to events is determined by how we interpret events. Instead of reacting emotionally to what we see around us, we need to take a step back and observe before we make rash judgements.
Psychologists call this cognitive distancing. It was practised by a number of Stoic’s including the Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius. It involves the separation of our judgements from external events. We must suspend value judgements from what occurs around us, otherwise, it can lead to unhealthy views of the world.
We cannot control the majority of events that happen on a daily basis, but we can control our reaction to them, and perhaps, that is more important.
Unblock Your Vision
It is impossible to be 100% objective in a subjective world. Whether we like it or not, we all make snap judgements and harbour prejudices on a range of topics. We would not be human if we didn’t.
The key is to try as much as you can to not let the subjectivity get in the way of the objectivity. For this, I again refer to Epictetus: “Train yourself, therefore, at the very outset to say to every harsh impression”: ‘You are merely an impression [phantasia] and not at all what you appear to be [phainomenon].’
It is important to recognise that our impressions are just what they appear to be, impressions. They are not reality themselves, they are our interpretations of it.
We need to be careful to not let our impressions seize the mind and control it. Instead, we should take a moment to let the impression sink in and analyse it before we jump to any rash conclusions.
We are emotional creatures. By acting in an emotional state, we are acting on impulses that come and go depending on our mood. They are not our default state and therefore colour our thinking. By deferring judgement until later, we allow ourselves to take emotion out of the equation and look at events in a rational manner.
It is in this exercise that we gain full control of our thoughts and our perception of the world, realising that our impression of events is different from the events themselves. We realise that the lens we view the world through is just a lens, and not the world itself.
When we find ourselves distorting reality, we need to remember that each of us has our own reality and that we should act more objectively to quell this tendency to overreact.
For this, I again refer to Epictetus:
And so make it your primary endeavour not to be carried away by the impression; for if once you gain time and delay, you will more easily become master of yourself.