It’s a Mess Out There–Or Is It?

It’s a mess out there, AND patterns are everywhere. Is it order or is it chaos? It depends how we see what we look at. Life is an optical illusion. Look, and it’s a mess. Look again, and patterns are everywhere. We see chaos until we look closer, and then we see order, meaning and purpose.

Perspective is everything. Perception is the heart of meaning. Interpretation makes sense (or nonsense) of anything. We frame reality to suit ourselves. Apart from the frame, from what we say something is when we look at it, from how we frame it to talk about it, there is nothing we can say about what is there. Reality takes shape around what we say it is. Nothing means anything until we decide—until we say—what it means. Reality is what we perceive it, how we interpret it, understand it, to be.

Well, not really. The world does operate independently of our perception of the world. The ice caps are melting, regardless of what we think, believe, perceive. But the meaning we ascribe to the melting of the ice caps and the action we take in response to it does depend exclusively on our perception of the event—upon what we tell ourselves about it.

The response we have made to the transportation problem is to build more roads. More roads aren’t the solution to the problem that is generated when people pack together in suburban condominiums at night and try to drive to work in the morning. We can fill up any road in about fifteen minutes. The more roads they build, the more cars they make. You can see without looking that it isn’t going to work. The ice caps are melting and you can’t drive to work at 7:45 in the morning, or home from work after 4:00 in the afternoon. More roads? Not the answer. Yet, our perception of both the transportation problem and the ice caps melting problem determines the meaning we ascribe to it and the response we make. How we see determines how we live.

How we see is the critical element in everything that follows, and everything follows, so, everything hinges on how we see. We have to see our seeing. The rest hangs on it. We cannot assume that the way we see anything is the way the thing is. We have to consider that our seeing might be skewed by ten thousand things, most of which have to do with how we have seen things up to this point. And, what stake we have in things being as we say they are.

Perhaps there are different ways to see. We owe it to ourselves to find out. We owe it to ourselves, and to all that is yet to be, to see what we see from as many angles and distances as possible, so that our response is as informed and as wise as possible. But, if we are the fossil fuel industry, you can understand why we would look the other way and say the carbon imprint has nothing to do with the polar meltdown.

Information enlightens action. And, intention skews information. We don’t know what to do until we know what’s what. Ah, but, here is the kink in the chain: The most objective fact has to be interpreted subjectively. Information does not exist in pure form anywhere. We filter everything through our experience, interests, dreams, desires, fears and anxieties—until, before we know it, our interpretation of the fact, our impression of the fact, the implications we think the fact has for us, cannot be separated from the fact itself. We are always filling in “the rest of the picture” with our prejudices, inferences, and presumptions.

It is difficult for us to detach ourselves from our experience of life in order to view it as disinterested observers. Information is instantly interpreted and linked to meaning. What something is exists in relationship with what the thing means for us personally. Information has implication. We get to the information through the implication—which is to say that the information we receive is restricted or enlarged by the questions we allow ourselves to ask, and is limited or expanded by our ability to deal with the implications the information has for us. We will hide from ( deny, discount, ignore) anything we cannot handle. We have to practice handling things we don’t want to deal with. You can guess how popular that idea will prove to be.

The work of Thomas Kuhn suggests that not even science is immune to the rule that we get to information through implication. He holds that science is not a smooth and steady progression based on the accumulation of knowledge. There are scientific presumptions that limit the kinds of questions scientists ask. Innovation comes about when scientists begin to wonder about things that lie outside the bounds of their specialty. We can truly experiment only when we are free to question the foundational assumptions regarding which questions are proper to ask. We generally have to get beyond our specialty—outside of our commonly held views—in order to see things freely—in order to not know what inquiries we are not supposed to make.

If science is that way theology/religion is doubly so. My work in the church was to champion ways lay people wanted to “do” church over against the denominational standards of how church is supposed to be “done.” The hierarchy can only see how things are supposed to be from the point of view of the hierarchy—how members are to be received, for instance—and it cannot see any value in doing things differently from the way they have always been done. In order to create a future that is different from our past, we have to see the value in doing things differently than they have been done—and do them differently. And when doing comes to thinking and believing, the church begins to look for the exit or the eject button in order to get away from this conversation NOW!!!

We are not going to create a future that is different from our past until that is forced on us by a present that allows no alternative. Those of us who see that present coming, can prepare the way of transformation by taking up the practice of seeing ourselves seeing.

Nothing has the creative potential of a perspective that takes itself into account. We develop this kind of perspective by saying what we see and wondering what else there might be to see—by asking ourselves what we are not seeing and how our seeing impacts what’s there. We can enhance our chances of developing this kind of perspective by being quiet on a regular basis. There is nothing like silence—solitude—to enable us to see. We assist the revelation potential of silence by emptying ourselves of everything we carry with us into the silence—fear/desire/duty are the big three, but the first thing we notice when we sit in quiet stillness is how noisy it is. We bring noise with us into the silence and have to empty ourselves of all that creates the heaving waves and clashing rocks within us. The practice of being quiet is the practice of being empty in order to be quiet!

One of the things we might see when we are quiet is that the universe is not entirely separate from us. We interact with the universe at the level of perception. Internal and external engage one another and are connected to one another by invisible bands of perspective. There is a sense in which the “in here” and the “out there” are one experience, one thing.

The resurrection appearances of Jesus are a beautiful illustration of the way the “in here” merges inseparably with the “out there.” I have no doubt that the resurrection appearances were real. The disciples, and others, including Paul, actually perceived the resurrected Jesus as “out there,” as “other than” themselves. C. S. Lewis is reported to have appeared to William Barclay after his—Lewis’—death (Or, was it the other way around?). It happens frequently enough for us to have complete confidence that after death encounters with those who have died are real. And they are created with the power of perception.

There is a (perhaps apocryphal) story about a group of scientists going to India to study paranormal phenomena. They heard of a rope-climbing guru and went to interview him. They set up their movie camera and asked him to demonstrate his ability. He took a rope out of a basket, coiled it on the ground and began to play a flute. The rope uncoiled straight into the air. He put down the flute, climbed up the rope, down the rope, coiled it up and put it in the basket. The scientists were astonished, and couldn’t wait to watch the film. When they ran it through the projector, they watched as the swami got the rope out of the basket, coiled it on the ground, played the flute, put the flute down, paused a moment, picked up the rope and put it in the basket. What they saw wasn’t what the camera recorded. The “out there” and the “in here” dance together all the way to the grave, and perhaps, beyond.

We have to be aware of the dance. We have to be aware of the role perception and perspective play in the world in which we live and to which we respond. We do not have to react the way we do to the way life is. The way we react influences and transforms the way life is. Perspective is the power of creation at work in the world and in our lives. We wield the power to impact the dance for better or worse. Everything hangs on our realizing the power that is ours and learning to use it wisely. This is where community—the company we keep—comes into play.

As we talk with one another about what’s going on in our lives, how it impacts us, how we respond to it, and how we wish things were instead, we bring our perspective into focus. We become aware of our perceptions by talking with one another about the way we see things and what they mean to us, for us. We enlarge our perception, our perspective, by being aware of it. We deepen it, develop it and become, thereby, responsible and trustworthy agents of creation within the turmoil and chaos of life.

All of this hinges on the quality of the company we keep. It takes the right kind of company to form the right kind of community. Communities of innocence have a straight-forward agenda: To be what is needed in the lives of those who are in need of what the community has to offer. Communities of innocence exist to receive us well and do right by us. They listen to us at a level that enables us to hear, see, and understand ourselves—to know who we are and also are—and imagine ways to bring ourselves forth within the context and circumstances of our lives. They provide us with order in chaos, peace in turmoil, and direction in the trackless wasteland. All we ever need for the low, low price of being innocently present for good in the lives of one another.

Published by jimwdollar

I'm retired, and still finding my way--but now, I don't have to pretend that I know what I'm doing. I retired after 40.5 years as a minister in the Presbyterian Church USA, serving churches in Louisiana, Mississippi and North Carolina. I graduated from Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, in Austin, Texas, and Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, Louisiana. My wife, Judy, and I have three daughters and five granddaughters within about twenty minutes from where we live--and are enjoying our retirement as much as we have ever enjoyed anything.

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