The reality(ies?) we live in…

Be forewarned: the following are the disjointed and rather aimless mental meanderings of an erstwhile philosophy major who probably should have waited until tomorrow to write a blog post…


There can be such a big disconnect between the reality that goes on in a person’s head and actual reality. Believe me, I know. I walk past countless personifications of this fact every day on my way to work: the homeless regulars who take up their stations on the sidewalk along Massachusetts Avenue, sometimes calling after people for breakfast or change, and sometimes just sitting lost (completely lost) in the worlds in their heads.

Of course these are the extreme examples. What about the rest of us? Because we all certainly fall into this as well: we take up a particular idea or fear, and we let it skew our entire perception of reality. We end up living in a disconnect between what’s really real and what’s real only in our own minds. We do this in our self-perception, of course. Take Callista Gingrich’s hairstyle of choice, for instance. She’s an intelligent, successful, potentially attractive woman–who appears to have chosen to ignore any and all outside opinions on her appearance…because she likes it. It’s a clear case of the reality in her head vs. the reality the rest of us see.*

Even those of us not in the public spotlight tend to have a view of ourselves, our own strengths and weaknesses, quite different from the view everyone else has of us. In some ways, the rest of the world may be more right than we realize. But in other ways, only we can really know our own motivations, thoughts, plans, dreams, hopes, etc. The trick lies in finding the balance between letting other people totally determine your view of yourself, and allowing realities about ourselves that other people notice to change us for the better.

Prime example? My senior year of college I developed a rather foul mouth. Okay, so I steered clear of the doozies, but I certainly dropped more expletives than I ever had before. I commented on this new habit of mine one day, in passing, to a close friend, but not because I thought I really needed to change it; I was just commenting. Maybe in some deep subconscious way I was seeking validation. Either way, to my surprise–and extreme embarrassment–she nodded and said, “Yeah, I’d noticed that.” She didn’t say anything else. She didn’t have to. Starting that moment, I went on a pretty serious vocabulary purge and cleaned up my act (er…mouth).

But in general I’m still working to find that balance. I guess we all are in our different ways. I tend to worry way too much about what other people think, sometimes to the point of paralysis. I want people’s “permission” to be, to act, or even to think a certain way. In my head I know that you can’t always make everybody happy: people will get ticked off with you sometimes, but as long as you’re not sinning…don’t worry about it. But I still get queasy and nervous and weepy when I learn that so-and-so is peeved with me, even if I have zero control over the situation.

Which brings me to my next point. Most of us experience that disconnect between reality and the reality in our heads especially in our relationships with other people. Why else would it be so easy to fall “in love” with a person you barely know? Or to decide right away “we’re friends” or “we’re enemies” when you’ve hardly exchanged two words with the person in question? I know we all do this. And it takes on many, many forms. Perhaps we place people on pedestals and expect them to keep their foothold there. Or we fall in love with someone we’ve seen across the room, and we build entire lifetimes with them in our heads. (Don’t try to tell me you’ve never done this. I will simply laugh at you.)

For myself, I am constantly surprised by the actual reality of other people. I can know a person for years, and then suddenly, one day, who they actually are leaps out and catches me off-guard. I place them in this or that category in my head, only to discover later that they’re so much more than my silly little label.

I would argue that real love happens only when we finally relinquish the person in our head to the real live, autonomous person. In a way, it’s relinquishing authority–or at least, a supposed authority. An acknowledgment of the other person’s freedom, dignity, and goodness. Because to acknowledge that the other person has an existence of his own is to acknowledge that he does not belong in my head. That his life is not a story I have any right to compose, any more than I want him trying to write my story for me.

I guess God does this perfectly, doesn’t he? In answer to those who say God must not care about us because so many dreadful things happen day after day to his “beloved” children, we can only say: He is the ultimate lover. He values our autonomy even more than we do ourselves, even to the point of allowing the sometimes awful consequences he sees so much more clearly than we ever can.

I’m not really sure where these musings came from or where they’re going. Just following up on a thought I’ve been toying with of late, that living sanity is like walking a rope bridge above a raging river. Insanity is–in so many ways–so much easier. But of course, there’s ultimately no surviving it.


*There are those, I am sure, who would argue that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, or that fashion is a subjective area. I grant this to some extent, but at a certain point I think we all have a basic agreement on what simply does not look right…or natural.


3 thoughts on “The reality(ies?) we live in…

  1. I LOVE this post. I think this is my most favoritest post you’ve ever written . . . I can’t even start. Just all these things that I’ve been (sort of–not as deeply as you!) musing on too, all laid out there. Wow.

  2. Have to say, I second Sylvia’s sentiments pretty heartily… (Btw, your anecdote about the language and the friend echoes an experience of my own, from sophomore year, almost down to a t.) Part of it is dealing with the whole famed issue of “normalcy”: how to be neither a crank nor a follower… Being myself someone who tends to look at myself more as reflected in other people’s eyes than directly (to the point that, I’ve realized, my whole way of talking and sense of humor will change drastically depending on the company present), it’s definitely something that’s been on my mind for a while… – And, heh – the inverse point, about looking at other people through your own “lens” and categorizing them, definitely sinks home to the philosopher whose business it is (he presumptuously thinks) to stick a tag on everything. (And on that point, no, I definitely won’t try to tell you that I’ve never built mental lifetimes with people I barely know :))

  3. This was not my “most favoritist post” you’ve ever written, but it is up in the top 10. I think the smarter you are, and the more value you place on relationships, the more the ideas and musings you’ve written about impact your thoughts and reality. Also, women are hard-wired to be more in tune with, and place more time and energy into, thinking about relationships and the perceptions that play into them.

    But know that we men create first impressions that cling tenaciously in our minds, and we sometimes fall victim to acting on these perceptions that are often laughably incorrect. Personally, it is one of my faults I most consitantly recognize and yet struggle to change. I really love the advice buried in this post, ‘value other people’s autonomy by sacrificing your perception of them and recognizing WHO THEY ACTUALLY ARE.’

    Loving the blogging MB…

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