Once when I was a teacher, I received a phone call from the father of a child I taught. The man was clearly in a state of the most acute distress. He told me that his wife had been diagnosed with incurable cancer, that she was about to undergo a double mastectomy but this would only prolong her life slightly. He said he’d done his best to explain the situation to their children and asked whether I would keep a special eye on the little lad in my class and give him as much support as I could. Naturally, I agreed and offered my sympathy.
A week later, I had a second phone call – from the man’s wife this time. She told me they had been to see the consultant together. She had said she wished to have the operation as a precautionary measure, since her mother, sister and several other female relatives had died from breast cancer. The consultant had made it quite clear that she had no trace of the disease and was entirely healthy. However he agreed to her request. Her husband, she told me, had completely misunderstood the situation. She apologised for the confusion caused by the call I’d received from him and emphasised that she was in perfect health.
Chatting the situation through later with a colleague who was an experienced psychiatrist, I asked how on earth two people, sitting in the same room and hearing the same words could come away with such diametrically different ideas of what had taken place.
“Oh it happens more often than you would believe,” she replied. “Everyone brings their own expectations to the table. I’ve sat in more meetings than you can imagine where people are simply unable to see beyond their own preconceptions into anything approaching an objective reality.”
So do we do that? Do we bend reality through the filters of our own experience and world view, so that we end up believing – totally and utterly – our own warped version of events? It would seem so. Yet after pondering this subject for many years, a new thought occurred to me. Is there actually an objective ‘reality’ out there at all? Is there some logical, rigidly defined Truth which we all recognise to a greater or lesser degree but can only see imperfectly? What if there is only some wavering, constantly shifting state which we are not perceiving but creating with all those preconceptions and ideas?
It’s remarkably difficult to let go of the concept of reality. We’ve been reared to believe that there is this solid, true world, one which religious leaders, politicians or scientists, maybe, are able to explain to us and translate for us. We’ve been buffeted for centuries with the words of our ‘elders and betters’ who tell us what to believe – what is true.
Suddenly, though – just within our own short lifetimes – ALL of their truths have been gathered together in one place and we have been given almost unlimited access to the whole lot. We press a couple of buttons on our devices and we have our very own comparison site. We can see the inconsistencies, the bias, the spin. Does this help us to see to the core? Can we now, with all that information laid bare before us, peel away the layers of the onion? Can we search for the truth at its centre?
Henrik Ibsen had his character Peer Gynt do exactly that. Here’s what he discovered:
What an enormous number of swathings!
Isn’t the kernel soon coming to light?
(Pulls the whole onion to pieces.)
I’m blest if it is! To the innermost centre,
it’s nothing but swathings – each smaller and smaller.-
Nature is witty!
So if there’s no objective reality – no nub of truth at the centre – just what we create for ourselves, let’s create something fantastic.