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We were at a small, intimate dinner, and that evening turned out to have a profound impact on me. For the first time, I was meeting a woman whom I’d heard about named Peggy Bassett, who had become a minister at the age of 50. She was adored by her community, and when I met her, she was a victim of ALS. Although she could still eat with us, she was in a reclining wheelchair. Yet her face glowed with serenity and joy. When one of the other guests asked her just before dinner how she was doing, she replied with some effort, “I’m just fine in here.”
I’m just fine in here.
Forty years later, those words still resonate in my heart.
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Living in a chaotic, confusing, and trying world, it’s difficult to know what is real anymore. We can observe what other people do and what they say, but are the times really as awful as many people say? How does one measure the emotional pain of one person, or even the resounding joy of another? What happens when perceptions of reality are wildly divergent within any community?
I first heard the quip, “Perception is reality” from Tom Peters, who was the Service Quality guru of the 1980s, writing the popular book, In Search of Excellence. He reminded us that no matter what we provide to a customer, how hard we try to give them what they wanted, their perception of our product or service was what mattered most. We needed to know then, and now, what the customers wanted and a way to provide it, if we wished to keep their business.
But government, the media, and other powers don’t think of us as their customers. In the time of Covid-19, citizens and their need to know what is happening with the virus, the vaccines, and with the statistics is essentially ignored. So we are left to form our own opinions. It almost doesn’t matter how many statistics we study, how many precautions we take (or ignore): in the presence of experts who have multiple agendas, we are forced to form our own perceptions. Thus, we have people who choose to do nothing, because they believe that the experts are so unreliable or political, they may as well live their lives as normal people. We also have people who, in the absence of clear information, assume the worst, that they will likely die if they don’t follow the rules, and so wear masks, avoid crowds, stay away from restaurants and the like.
And then there is the messy middle: those of us who muddle through what we know, get our vaccines, and try to live an ordinary life.
The problem with all of these approaches is that our perceptions take on the weight of some kind of truth. We become convinced, out of conviction, fear, or pure stubbornness, that we are right. And that everyone else must be wrong. Even for those of us who say that everyone has to make their own analyses and decisions, which they are entitled to do, a quiet part of us still knows they are wrong and we are right.
Because perception is just about all we have to understand our lives.
* * * * *
The most important perception I hold is that there is almost no way of really knowing what is true (except for the divine). So, we make our choices about what is “real” based on intuition.
As long as the experts are determined to exert their power and control; as long as the people are fearful of contracting the virus or giving it unwittingly to someone else; as long as citizens continue to comply and not resist, we will have different perceptions and see the world in conflicting ways.
I’m not sure what is worse: living under constraints or living with the tension of people whose perceptions cause them to see their world as a dangerous place.
The conflicts with experts are everywhere. We believe our legislators are out to meet their own agenda; they could care less about the citizenry of either party. The media also has its agenda, and they seem indifferent to whether we believe them or not. And the determination of so many leaders in society to do as they wish causes us to perceive them as power-hungry, uninformed and ego-driven. Our needs are secondary.
* * * * *
One step we can take is periodically to check out our perceptions: do they make sense today? Is there new data I believe I can trust and re-evaluate my positions? Is my perception a healthy one, or is it causing unnecessary damage in my life? We will continue to form, massage, and even change our perceptions so that we live a reality that makes sense to us. We seem to have no other choice. And yet the lesson I learned from Peggy Bassett so long ago is relevant to all of us today. No matter what is happening in the outside world, we can choose—yes, choose—how to perceive and function in today’s world. Most people don’t believe they have that power; they likely don’t believe in the power of faith, or the support they can receive to live without debilitating fear. But Peggy, beyond her disease, her suffering, and her limitations, knew that she had a choice about her state of mind and heart. And you can make that same choice, reminding yourself–
I’m fine in here.Published in