Many summers ago, my husband and I traveled to the Outer Banks of North Carolina for a vacation. Since the drive from New Jersey is lengthy, and there were four kids as passengers, we got on the road in the middle of the night and drove straight through.
The kids grumbled when we woke them and stumbled into the car with pillows in hand, falling back asleep for the next several hours and affording my husband and I a quiet car ride for part of the way.
Several hours later, in bright daylight, we were on a long, straight stretch of highway somewhere in Virginia. The car ahead of us inexplicably swerved left, then right, and then overcorrected left again, crossing the grassy median. It was immediately struck by on oncoming car, almost head-on. I can still hear the sound of the impact and breaking glass.
It happened in a span of several seconds. We were stunned. We didn’t even realize we were holding our breaths, but with our exhalation came a torrent of uncertainty while our car put distance between the accident and us.
“Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God! What should we do?”
“Call 911! Call now!!” So I did.
We debated turning around to share what we saw with the police, but realized if we took the next exit to turn around, we’d be sitting several miles back in the traffic that would surely mount as the accident scene was secured. We decided to keep going, knowing we gave our names and phone number when we placed the 911 call, should they need to contact us.
At first we were quiet, processing what happened. And then we started to discuss what we saw.
It quickly became apparent neither my husband nor I should ever be allowed on a witness stand.
I saw a burgundy Honda swerving in front of us, struck on the other side of the highway by a light blue, mid-size American-looking car.
My husband insisted the opposite. That the car directly in front of us, that we watched swerve several times, was the blue mid-size, struck by a burgundy car.
During the week of vacation, I periodically searched the internet for information about the crash. First, to learn the fate of the drivers, but also to see who would make a better witness. I never found out whose version was correct.
To this day, we disagree. The kids were still sleeping, so no tie-breaker there, leaving just the two of us; each adamantly sticking to our narrative of the story.
Which is frightening. And sobering.
It’s disturbing to know my husband and I viewed the event from identical angles, had nothing to gain, nor any preconceived notions that may have subconsciously influenced our perceptions, and yet could not agree on important details of the event. What could possibly account for our differing perceptions?
How many people have been wrongly convicted by inaccurate testimony? After this experience, my guess is many. By testimony that was given with certainty. With honesty. With confidence in its truth. Just like our differing versions of the vehicles involved.
What are the ramifications of this phenomenon?
Aside from the implications of life-and-death decisions in a courtroom, what does this mean in our everyday lives?
How can we possibly be sure we “see” things as they are? Especially when we DO have prior experiences, or a vested interest in an event, that can color what we perceive.
Many years ago, I read a book that changed the way I think about perception. Daniel Goleman, a former science journalist at The New York Times, authored a book titled “Vital Lies, Simple Truths”. Dr. Goleman investigated the reliability of perception and memory, and described the “psychological blind spots” our brains create as they filter and censor incoming information. Our brains are wired to essentially ignore, or at least interpret information, according to previously constructed “schemas”. Anything that does not fit our existing reality is unconsciously filtered out in at attempt to minimize the anxiety caused by truths that challenge these established “schemas”.
The book was not an easy read at first, but fascinating. And it left me keenly aware that the world is much more than what I alone, perceive.
Every thought, conversation and experience passes through a filter, to be interpreted and shaped to fit my existing paradigm of reality. And your brain does the same. All this happens on an unconscious level. Scary.
Often attributed to Anais Nin (as well as others), there is a famous quote that succinctly describes what Dr. Goleman found:
We don’t see things as they are; we see them as we are.
Have you ever had a disagreement with someone who experienced a situation differently than you? Who heard things you’re pretty sure were never spoken? Who assumed intentions that weren’t your own? I sure have. It can be very frustrating. It’s tempting to be defensive, to prove your side, to disprove another’s. I’ve tried all these and I bet I’m not alone.
But it’s seldom productive. It’s also not respectful.
Knowing this, I’ve tried to become a better listener. I want to know how you perceived our interaction, what you heard versus what I said. There’s often a gulf between the shores of differing realities.
But even being mindful of how differently people experience the same event, what can be done to safeguard truth from innocent and unintended misinterpretation?
The Bible has some wise and interesting wisdom on the topic.
“A single witness shall not suffice against a person for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense that he has committed. Only on the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses shall a charge be established.
Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses.
1 Timothy 5:19
But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses.
It seems God knew our perceptions would be skewed. Of course. He made us.
If corroboration of a version cannot be made, then sometimes we just have to agree to disagree. We must afford each other mutual respect and a recognition that either party could have misinterpreted what occurred, and that someone may be me. Or you.
Except if it’s a question about burgundy and blue cars.
Have you ever experienced a drastic difference in perception about the same event? If so, how do you handle the disparity?