“Most misunderstandings in the world could be avoided if people would simply take the time to ask, ‘What else could this mean?”” – Shannon Adler
“What we do see depends mainly on what we look for.
In the same field the farmer will notice the crop,
the geologists the fossils, botanists the flowers,
artists the coloring, sportsmen the cover for the game.
Though we may all look at the same things,
it does not all follow that we should see them.”
- John Lubbock
There’s a saying – “You can talk about politics and religion. Or you can have friends.” How many gatherings end on a sour note, and how many conversations end with hurt feelings when conversations turn to these subjects? It’s frightening how quickly a discussion can go from civil to caustic, each side usually advocating a one-dimensional version of reality as the uncontroverted truth.
Perception has come to be synonymous with reality, but perception depends less on what we see than who we are. Says Robertson Davies, “The eye sees only what the mind is prepared to comprehend.” Basically, what we see when we look, is a choice, in that we see what we’re looking for.
A few years ago, the theory of “Perception Bias” was tested by placing Joshua Bell, a world-class violinist, in the DC Metro. Playing some of the most sublime music ever composed, on a violin worth several million dollars, Joshua Bell played in front of thousands of streaming commuters, who wouldn’t even look at him. Curious toddlers – not yet permeated with perception bias – who wanted to stop and listen, were yanked along by impatient parents, who were not interested in a subway musician. I wonder if any of those who walked on by were among the concert-goers who paid a hundred bucks or more to hear Mr. Bell perform that very evening.
Our brains process billions of bits of information per second, yet we can only process a few dozen of them. Our brains choose which infinitesimal sliver – out of all the possible reality to look at – and then our bias tells us how to interpret that sliver. It’s all a choice – believe it or not. Thus, our perceptions are biased. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
This week’s Torah portion, “Re’eh,” which means “See,” tells us to look at the choices before us, to see life and death, blessings and curses – and to choose life. “See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil . . . blessing and curse. Therefore, choose life, that you and your offspring may live.” Well, that’s pretty easy, isn’t it? I think anyone can get that one right. But just to make sure, we are told which choice to make, in case we lack in the clarity department. If we need to be directed to make the “obvious” choice, is it possible that the choice is not obvious? Maybe we don’t see things as clearly as we think we do. Or do we intentionally obfuscate? We must not be so sure what we are seeing – or else why be told which is the better choice?
Making Perception Bias Work for You
First, we must be decide what it is we want to see, because we always and inevitably find what we are looking for. The Talmud teaches this concept that one who says he has looked but hasn’t found, don’t believe him. If he says he has found and hasn’t looked, don’t believe him. Only the one who says he has both looked and has found can be believed (Megillah 6). And yet no one is without perception bias – the question is how can we make that work for us instead of against us? The answer is that it’s a choice we make.
Do you want to find something to criticize in a person? You will. Do you want to find the negative in a situation? You will. Thoreau said that a faultfinder will find fault – even in paradise. You want to see the good in a person or a situation? You will. Do you wish you could see your life as filled with blessings and not curses? You can.
Moses tells us that when we choose to see Torah as life-giving and then make choices so as to live in alignment with that reality, we are choosing life. But it’s not easy and certainly not obvious, given the state of illusion of this world. Often, we are enamored of things and actions that are anti-Torah, and we make choices, in effect, where we are confused between blessings and curses; life and death.
The Torah is called the Tree of Life, and a tree has many branches and many leaves. Look at it. Look at it with the deliberate intention of seeing something good, of seeing something in a new light, anything really, that will help you be a better, kinder person, that will help you get a little bit closer to God and a little more loving of your fellow man. Just one leaf. And then choose it and act consistently with your choice. Learn the meaning of life, and then choosing the blessings life has to offer, becomes a no-brainer.
Internalize & Actualize:
- Write down five things you don’t like about yourself. Be honest and blunt. Now, right next to those rewrite those very five things into something positive. This is not about finding five different things you do like, but about liking the five things you don’t like (ie. “I am fat and hate my body” vs. “My body has carried and birthed my children and given them life.”
- Being that we see what we are looking for, what are some things you want to be seeing in your life? Are you looking in the right places for them? Are you looking with the right eyes to find them? Why or why not? What can you do differently?
- Do others see you the way you want to be seen? What can you do differently so that when people look at you they see your beauty and the amazing person you truly are?
“…And for the child who does not know how to ask,
you must teach him how…”
– Passover Haggadah
The Torah portion, “Korach,” is the name of one of the most famous attempted power-grabbers in Jewish history. In the story line, the priestly honors and appointments were doled out long ago to Moses and his brother Aaron. Korach, their cousin, was left out of this honor society and was resentful. However, Moses was untouchable as a leader, and so Korach kept his bitterness to himself.
Times had changed, however. After the incident with the spies in the previous Torah portion of “Shelach,” when the people knew they were not going into the land of Israel but were condemned to die in the desert, it was a time of crisis and unrest. Moses’ ratings were down, thus giving Korach the perfect opportunity to capitalize on the situation and to try to usurp Moses as the leader.
And Korach did so by posing a simple question to Moses and Aaron: “The entire community is holy, and God is within them; why do you raise yourselves over the congregation of God?” That doesn’t sound too bad – does it? Korach is saying, “If we’re all holy, then what makes you guys so special? I’m every bit as special as you.” Korach even got a few hundred guys to agree with him because his platform was essentially that he was the champion for the masses, he stood for the little guy, and that everyone is equal – perhaps the first Jewish communist.
But Korach wasn’t looking to make everyone the same. He wasn’t looking to make this an equal opportunity procedure. This wasn’t the Biblical version of: “I’m holy. You’re holy. And that’s OK.” Korach wanted to be the High Priest, and assuming he was to overthrow Moshe and appoint himself, by the time his groupies figured out that nothing changed for them, well you know what happens in takeovers.
As fascinating as the story line is (and to find out what happened to Korach, read The Book), what interests me is the use of the question. When Korach asked, “What makes you holier than me?” it wasn’t an honest inquiry at all. He was looking to find fault with Moses, and he was trying to get others to join in, to see reality his way, and he did it through the use of questions, because – and this is important to understand – the reality that we see depends on the questions that we ask.
Why is that? Our brains take in billions of bits of information per second, but it can only process about 60 bits per second, less than an infinitesimal sliver. You know how people can experience the same thing so differently? That is because they are focusing on their selective 60 bits per second. And I use the word “selective” deliberately. We can actually select which sliver to focus on, and the way we do that is by the questions we ask.
Isidore Rabi, winner of a Nobel Prize in physics, was once asked why he became a scientist. He replied, “My mother made me a scientist without even knowing it. Every other child would come home from school and be asked, ‘What did you learn today?’ But my mother wanted to know something else. ‘Izzy,’ she always used to say, ‘did you ask a good question today?’ That made the difference.”
Let’s look at relationships. In the infatuation or romantic phase of a relationship, the part of the brain associated with critical thinking is dysfunctional. When that part of our brain comes back on-line, and critical thinking resumes, we start asking ourselves – “What’s wrong with my spouse? What’s wrong here? What happened to the person I married, etc.?”
And when we turn these questions inward we create inner shame. The brain doesn’t like unanswered questions and so when you ask a negative question (What’s wrong with me?), your brain will only supply a negative answer (I’m such a loser, mess, etc.).
And while we mustn’t turn a blind eye to problems, the tendency to focus only on the problems–to allot our 60-bit sliver of reality to the negative–shuts out all of the good and wonderful aspects of a relationship. It’s as if we are wearing blinders, and if we can’t see it, then these things don’t exist, even if they are right in front of us. Incidentally, I think this is one of the main reasons relationships fail or suffer, because we become very good at being fault-finders, and we lose the ability to see the good.
Changing What We See
Therefore, if the questions we ask create the reality we see, it stands to reason that we can change our reality by asking better questions. When you change your question, you change what you are looking for. By understanding this dynamic, you can engineer a more positive life and relationships.
Chassidic thought teaches that there is a seed of greatness in every moment and a spark of holiness in everything – even more so in people. Try looking for it with positive questions. “What is working? What is going well? What is there to be grateful for? When are things good and what factors make it happen? What’s my role in that? What do I do well and how can I do more of that? What are the blessings in this situation? How is this situation calling for me to serve, to act, to change, to grow?”
Here’s the secret, and it’s a phrase well worn into me by Tal Ben Shahar: “When we see the good, the good appreciates.” And we see the good by asking good questions. When Korach looked at Moses, all he could ask was why was he not getting what he wanted, why others were being elevated over him, and why was he being denied what he thought was coming to him. In a situation flowing with lemonade, all Korach could do was make lemons. Let us not make the same mistake. Let us look for the good, see the good, and enjoy the many blessings in our lives.
Internalize & Actualize:
- We all have someone in our lives that makes us jealous. Think about that person and then write down the questions that pop into your mind (ie. “why her and not me?). Now…take those very same questions and ask change them around to focus on positive growth and development for yourself.
- Think about a question you have asked yourself (or another) that had a transformative effect on who you are today. What about the question or answer was made such an impact?
- Being able to question another or our situation takes a lot of strength. What questions do you have for yourself that perhaps you have been avoiding asking? Write down three questions that you may not yet have the answers for but can begin to work on.