Perception is [Not] Reality

Perception: the way you think about or understand someone or something” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)

Perception… It seems to be a generic justification to be intolerant of any behavior deemed offensive by the narrow view of an individual or organization.

What is perception? When I was in various training seminars or classes for business and management, “Perception is reality” was a phrase repeated over and over again. It’s a statement I’ve repeated as well while training others, assuming the mindset to be true. The overall notion makes sense: The way certain behavior is perceived is accepted as truth, by the individual(s) witnessing that behavior.

Businesses, social and religious organizations, and individuals will often act or fail to act in a certain manner out of concern of what others may think.  But… Is this really a legitimate gauge by which to judge or justify the way we live our lives or interact with others? The more I’ve thought about this, the more I’ve realized the absurdity of this mindset. If I were to conduct my behavior in a way as to not offend any person, I would never accomplish a single thing (heck, I could never leave the house).

Here’s an example from my own life:

I’ve spent a decent amount of time in Nigeria. It is completely normal and acceptable for two friends (regardless of gender) to hold hands as they’re walking or talking. It is a sign of friendship; no one would think twice about it. However, (back in the U.S.) in Indianapolis, Indiana it is not. If you see two people walking down the street holding hands and talking, you assume they are involved in a romantic relationship.

One of my close friends who immigrated from Nigeria wanted to show me the items he was looking at for remodeling the building where his church would be relocating. He grabbed my hand and was excitedly showing me around the hardware store… pointing at different countertops, carpet styles, and ceramic tile…

…in that moment I had to make a subconscious decision… was my friendship with him more important than the way some people may be perceiving us? Sure, when we were in Nigeria it was no big deal for us to hold hands and wander around… but in the middle of conservative-minded suburban Indianapolis, where it would be assumed he and I were in a romantic relationship?

I decided I didn’t care what people thought… he was my friend… and I wasn’t about to damage that friendship by worrying about the opinion of others.

Here’s the problem with perception… it’s not about your action, it’s about the way your action may/may not be received by an endless variety of unique individuals. We see situations every day and come to conclusions that are largely based on our view of what is/is not acceptable. Based on our individual backgrounds or cultural heritage… the actions of another person might offend us. However, the more diverse our understanding is of others… we may see the exact same action as harmless.

How does this apply to Christianity (as most things in this blog do)?

Rather than Christians being rendered ineffective by the impossible to accomplish task of not offering a negative perception, I think it would be more effective for us to work on not being hurt or offended so easily by the actions of others. We take things so personally, forming flawed opinions of ourselves and others. It makes us feel powerful to restrict people, to place them in the boxes of our own opinion and become condescending toward them. We do this in the political sphere as well as in personal relationships. Ultimately, serving to alienate people from God by imposing our personal preferences upon their lives.

The Pharisees loved to do this, especially in matters relating to faith… Jesus rebuked them for it (Matthew 23:13).

The example we see of Jesus was not one of shying away from situations based on the perception of others. If that were the case, the “woman at the well” would have never believed… and her town would have never been transformed by Jesus’ message.

Perhaps we should worry less about our individual perspectives or perceptions, be less offended, and become more concerned with loving people as Jesus commanded.

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