Sunday, February 13, 2011

perception is reality except when it isn't

I fall smack in the middle of the extrovert/introvert spectrum.  That means that I can stand around and chat as long as I need to but when it comes time to be done I am pretty pumped to be done with chit-chat.  My cousin has appropriately labeled it "selectively social."

Troy can chat much longer than I can and is the more extroverted of the two of us. Dr. Jen claims he is chattier than 99% of the male population.  I've never checked her numbers, but she can't be too far off. All of that to say, Troy is much more awesomer  at answering questions and being social when groups are visiting.  Sometimes I just want to avoid social situations that force surface conversations and small talk. I find that I place more value on the authentic conversation that deep long-term relationships allow. I assume it is just a difference between the way God made Troy and I, but it could also be a major personality defect.

Not so long ago I stood with a few ladies in one of those social settings as we politely conversed and attempted to get to know each other.  I'm sure you know the dance where you are careful to take turns asking each other questions about work, home, family, and hobbies. She asks you, you ask her, back and forth it goes.

On this particular day the women I had just met asked about the usual things.  When we got to the part where I answered their questions about where we live the one woman said, "Oh my goodness.  I am so surprised you live there. Oh! That place. I used to fly in and out of there many years ago and I could just feel the evil each time we landed."  She went on to say, "It was like a darkness that came over us right as we descended each time." 

I listened closely to her intimidating description of this place we have lived for five years. I wondered how she came to her conclusion. I tried unsuccessfully to think of one time where I felt something as ominous as what she was describing. Her rendition made it sound like the pilot had to dodge multiple packs of demons and visible ominous clouds of evil in order to even put the plane down in Port au Prince.

She never asked me my opinion, or how I felt about her perceptions.  Once she finished sharing her thoughts about the lurking evil, we moved on to other topics. Had she asked I would have told her Haiti is a difficult place, a complicated place, but certainly not terribly dark or scary.  I would have told her that like every other place on earth - there are beautiful souls here and that sometimes - like every other place on earth - evil things happen.

It bugged me for days after the conversation. More than bugging me though, it got me thinking that most of my perceptions of places I've not yet been and people I've not yet met are based on someone else's experiences and opinions. Was Haiti dark and evil to her because she had actually experienced something terrible here or was Haiti dark because she read in the news and heard from friends that it was? How many people and places have I made unfair fear-based decisions about?

What if we all decided not to let someone else tell us what was evil and what was scary? What if we did not make decisions about large groups of people based on the thoughts of friends and relatives? What if fear no longer shaped our opinions about people and places and cultures that are different than us?  What if talking heads on television, driven by a desire to sell advertising, were not the ones forming our thoughts on our neighbors around the world?

Perception is reality, except when it isn't.