Practical Philosophy

Understand the Limits of Your Perception

“It is not objects and events but the interpretations we place on them that are the problem.”

Gregory Hays, Foreward to Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

The way that we perceive the world often causes us to become upset, angry and emotional.

That’s why the first of the three doctrines of Meditations by Marcus Aurelius is Perception. Fix the way you see things by separating the reality from your interpretation.

Jumping to Conclusions

It’s easy to jump to conclusions when something (or somebody) bothers you.

When I lived in Thailand, I remember several times where people would jump queues. It would infuriate me.

In one instance, I was in the checkout line, when an old Chinese lady walked right by me to the till. Barely holding in my contempt, I told her “I was here first.” She apologised and went to the back of the line. I was angry for hours.

To me, walking past me in the queue was her taking advantage of me. She thought she could run me over. She thought that her time was more important than mine.

Separating the Reality from our Interpretation

Marcus Aurelius was careful to separate perception into 2 parts:

  • What objectively happened
  • Our interpretation/judgement of the situation.

In this case, what objectively happened was that the old lady jumped past me in the queue.

However, it was my interpretation that she was deliberately taking advantage of me. This was a judgement I had made. A conclusion I had come to.

In the land of abstract interpretation, anything is up to our imagination. Maybe she didn’t understand the concept of queues. Maybe she didn’t see me. Maybe she didn’t see the queue at all. The truth is that I would never know.

“You take things you don’t control and define them as “good” or “bad.” And so of course when the “bad” things happen, or the “good” ones don’t, you blame the gds and feel hatred for the people responsible – or those you decide to make responsible.”

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

On Reddit, a user also gave another example perception gone awry. In this case, you order a coffee from a Barista. He takes your order, doesn’t say a word, makes it, and gives it to you. “He is a rude person” you think to yourself.

How Far Do We Go?

For the sake of our mental well-being and avoiding negative spirals, it’s wise to keep things objective. Avoid making drastic conclusions on small things.

This is a problem a lot of people have. They turn small things into big problems. In Discovering Personality, Dr. Jordan B. Peterson introduces us to the pyramid of abstraction.

We start at the bottom of the pyramid. This is where things are most concrete and “real”: the Barista didn’t talk.

Now you could leave it at that. However, once we start entering the realm of interpretation, things begin getting more abstract.

First, we can interpret the situation: He is a rude barista. Then, we may go further up the pyramid of abstraction – all baristas are rude. Then we may think that people in general are rude. Eventually, we may take this to indicate that society is bad.

If we don’t check ourselves, it is entirely possible to go this far up. How many people do you know who have a tendency to say things like”

  • “Oh this teenager is shouting outside… We are a broken society”
  • “Oh this item is broken… The Chinese can’t make anything good.”
  • “Oh this bank overcharged me… The bankers are out to get us.”
  • “Oh I made a mistake preparing lunch… I am a bad father.”

Whether you believe an interpretation to be true or not, you should ask yourself “How healthy is it to think this way?”

“You don’t have to turn this into something. It doesn’t have to upset you. Things can’t shape our decisions by themselves.”

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Constrain the Problem to Its Objective Truth

The solution, according to Jordan Peterson, is to constrain the problem to the smallest thing it really is.

What specifically happened? OK, the bank over-charged you. OK, you messed up lunch. The is the reality.

Be careful when you are tempted to add your own impressions into the mix.

Whatever you do, don’t climb too far up the pyramid of abstraction and eventually condemn society.

In the end, we have to protect our minds.

Do not think the world is out to get you and create a personal hell for yourself. Don’t make something bigger than it really is.

“The things you think about determine the quality of your mind. Your soul takes on the color of your thoughts.”

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *