How Do You Know?

(*-*)     AAA     (00)     I 000000 I     ^–^     I – – _ – – _ I

Look at the six designs above.  Assign a label to each of them by selecting one of the following words: “Indians,” “piggy nose,” “shy kitty,” “woman,” “sleeper,” and “bathroom.”

Now that you’ve assigned labels to the designs, ask yourself: “Why is this so easy to do?”  For example, if you labeled AAA as “Indians,” then how does an Indian village with its ponies, tents, campfires, etc. fit so comfortably into three letters?  The symbols have no meaning.  We give them meaning by how we choose to interpret them.  You have the freedom to select any meaning for any experience instead of being a victim who must assign one and only one meaning to each experience.

We automatically interpret all of our experiences without realizing it.  Are they good experiences, bad ones, what do they mean and so on?  We do this without much thought, if any, to what the interpretations mean.  For instance, if a woman bumps into you, you wonder why.  The event of her bumping into you is neutral in itself.  It has no meaning.  It’s your interpretation of the bumping that gives it meaning, and this meaning shapes your perception of the experience.

You may interpret the “bump” as rude or deliberately aggressive behavior.  Or you may feel you are of such little significance that you are deliberately unnoticed and bumped around by others. You may choose to use the experience as an example of feminist aggression, or you may interpret the bump as her way of flirting with you.  Your interpretation of the experience determines your perception.

Think of roses and thorns.  You can complain because roses have thorns, or you can rejoice because thorns have roses.  You can choose to interpret experiences any way you wish.  It is not the experience that determines who you are; it is your interpretation of the experience.  You do not see things as they are; you see them as you are.

Once upon a time, two explorers came upon a spectacular, perfectly tended garden of vegetables in the middle of jungle.  One explorer says, “What a beautiful garden.  It looks so perfect.  Surely, a gardener must tend this garden.” 

The other explorer disagrees, “There is no way a gardener can tend this garden.  It is in the middle of the jungle, hundreds of miles from civilization.  There is so sign of human life anywhere.  Surely, it is some kind of natural phenomenon.”

After much arguing, they agree to set up camp and watch for someone to show up and tend the garden.  They stay for months but nobody shows up.

“See,” said the Doubter. “There is no gardener, for surely he would have appeared by now to tend the garden, which is still perfect.  It must be a random creation of nature.”

The Believer argued, “No, there must be a gardener.  He may be invisible, intangible, and eternally elusive to our understanding.  But it is not possible for such a beautiful, well tended garden to exist in the middle of the jungle without being tended.  The garden, itself, is proof of the existence of the gardener, and I have faith that the gardener will return to tend his garden.”

Both the Believer and Doubter interpreted the garden differently, and these two different interpretations led to two different beliefs.  When you believe something, you have the feeling that you chose to believe, or to not believe, based on reason and rational thinking.  But this is not so, your beliefs are shaped by the way you interpret your experiences.

How you interpret experiences also helps determine how you feel.  While researching happiness and well-being, Professor Daniel Kahneman of Princeton University discovered that when he asked college students if they were happy, most said yes.  However, if he first asked how many dates they had in the last month and then asked if they were happy, most said no.  Their interpretation of the questions determined how they felt.

Your theory about the world is deduced from your interpretations and beliefs.  That theory then determines what you observe in the world.  At one time, ancient astronomers believed that the heavens were eternal and made of ether.  Their theory made it impossible for them to observe meteors as burning stones from outer space.  Although the ancients witnessed meteor showers and found some on the ground, they couldn’t recognize them as meteors from outer space.  They only sought out and observed only those things that confirmed their theory about the heavens.

We are like the ancient astronomers and actively seek only the information that confirms our beliefs and theories about ourselves and the world.  Religious people see evidence of God’s handiwork everywhere; whereas atheists see evidence that there is no God anywhere.  Conservatives see the evils of liberalism everywhere and liberals see the evils of conservatism everywhere.  Likewise, people who believe they are creative see evidence of their creativity everywhere, and people who do not believe they are creative see evidence everywhere that confirms their negative belief.  That which does not conform to our theories makes us feel uncomfortable and confused.  I’m reminded of a story told to me by “Black Cloud,” my Lakota Sioux good friend, who heard the story from his grandfather.An old Sioux warrior had eight magnificent horses.  One night, during a great storm, they all escaped.  The other warriors came to comfort him.  They said, “How unlucky you are.  You must be very angry to have lost your horses.”

“Why?” replied the warrior.

“Because you have lost all your wealth.  Now you have nothing,” they responded.

“How do you know?” He said.

The next day the eight horses returned bringing with them twelve new stallions.  The warriors returned and joyously announced that now the old warrior must be very happy.

“Why?”  was his response.

“Because now you are even richer than before,”  They responded.

“How do you know?”  He again responded.

The following morning, the warrior’s young son got up early to break in the new horses.  He was thrown and broke both his legs.  The warriors came once more, and talked with the old warrior about how angry he must be at his misfortune and how terrible it was for his son to break both legs.

“How do you know?”  The warrior said once more.

Two weeks passed.  Then the chief announced that all able-bodied men and boys must join a war party to fight against a neighboring tribe.  The Lakotas won but at great cost as many men and young boys were killed.  When the remaining warriors returned, they told the old warrior that it was lucky his son had two broken legs, otherwise he could have been killed or injured in the great battle.”

“How do you know?” He said.