Perception vs. Reality. Can We Handle the Truth?

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It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see. — Henry David Thoreau

There is a pivotal scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Indy, Elsa, and Donovan have reached the temple of the Holy Grail. Hidden among dozens of imposters, only the true grail will bestow eternal life. Drinking from a false goblet ensures immediate death. Aware of Nazi collaborator Donovan’s presumptions, historian Elsa hands him the solid gold chalice. He eagerly accepts, blind to the fact he is about to be incinerated as a result. Indy ponders his options carefully and selects the unadorned cup of a simple carpenter. He chose wisely.

Our perceptions govern how we select and interpret information. We are all magpies, attracted to the bright and shiny data that reinforce our opinions. As such, how can anyone formulate a truly accurate viewpoint? Is an unbiased opinion even feasible or an impossible dream?

It fascinates me how two people can look at the same set of facts and come up with completely opposite conclusions. I live in Los Angeles. We were lucky enough not to have most of our hospitals overrun and the USNS Mercy was underutilized. For some, this means we all did our job to flatten the curve and not strain the system. Kudos to Angelenos. To others, it proves that we never needed to quarantine in the first place. Our freedoms were curtailed for unjustified reasons. Both sides can cite “proof” to validate their positions. The debate rages on incessantly.

Now we find ourselves in a much more volatile environment: the #blacklivesmatter movement and subsequent protest/backlash. My purpose for this piece is not to deliberate the heartbreaking details of what transpired on May 25, 2020. I know my musings would be simple and inadequate. My quandary stems from how I — a middle-aged, middle-class white woman living in the suburbs — am to appropriately react. I want to — I NEED to get this right. In the past few days, I have seen and heard “evidence” to support positions on each end of the spectrum and thousands in between. Law enforcement tear-gassing peaceful protesters, protesters spitting and throwing bricks at police, Sheriffs kneeling with demonstrators, demonstrators providing water to the National Guard. Reports of Antifa inciting vandalism and destruction countered by stories of white supremacists doing the same and placing the blame on minorities. Looting rooted in crimes of opportunity and mob mentality. Marching for justice. Marching for anarchy. Marching for peace. Whatever your predilection, you can find facts to sustain it.

The dirty little secret of “truth”

In reality, ALL content is clickbait. From the National Enquirer to CNN to Fox News to the New York Times each and every bit of media is designed to grab your attention and keep you reading/viewing for as long as possible. Anyone searching for truth can easily be sucked into a whirlpool of disinformation. Journalistic ideals are built upon the notion of keeping the public informed, but journalists need to make a living. Conglomerates are not known for their altruism. The more readers/viewers, the more advertising dollars to feed the machine.

As a result, every article’s construction is designed to keep you captivated. Which, by the way, is no easy feat. Only 20% of readers will read past the headline. (Side Note: nearly 60% of readers will share an article after only reading the headline.) Half of that 20% will read halfway through and barely a fourth will read 75%. That means for every 100 views, maybe five will read the entire piece. To counteract disinterest, journalists are taught the inverted pyramid structure of article writing. This top-loaded method is designed to present the Who? What? When? Where? Why? How? and So What? as quickly as possible. Not only to attract the reader, but also to make sure the story still makes sense should the piece be shortened due to column space or time constrictions.

Compounding the difficulty is the rule of thumb that all that information — at least the 4Ws and the H — needs to be presented in 25 words or less. Anything more than 30 is considered cumbersome. Additionally, an adept journalist is expected to “know their audience,” cater to it and relate why this information is important to them. Complete objectivity is an illusion — and unprofitable.

This sensationally crafted lead also has to be written for the average reader. That’s understandable, you might say, until you realize that most Americans have a 4th-8th grade comprehension level. Next time you read a piece that feels like it is written for adolescents, you’d be correct.

What you feed your mind determines your appetite — Zig Ziglar

It’s no secret that social media utilizes algorithmic curation to determine what gets priority on your newsfeed. Google searches, email lists, Facebook likes, etc. are continually fine-tuning the filter towards the content will promote an emotional engagement and ideological brand attachment, weeding out any or all information that may not align with your way of thinking. Facebook has made it clear that its policy is not to differentiate between propaganda and facts. No one is immune to this chumming of the media waters. Every reader is caught up in an optimized feeding frenzy designed to stimulate their convictions, not challenge them. To think you are reading objective information without putting forth an active effort is tilting at windmills. Our current obesity crisis is not based on a scale, but in self-righteous bloat.

Highway to a Danger Zone

Have you ever shopped for a pair of polarized sunglasses? Touted as the epitome in protective eyewear, polarized lenses can add around $100 to the price tag of your shades. Which, of course, ups the status quotient.

Polarized lenses enhance your vision by dissipating glare, thereby reducing eyestrain. Better clarity is what they promise. But that crystal-clear vision is only possible in ideal circumstances. If the angle of the sun isn’t in the sweet spot, your sight can be obscured — sometimes placing you in great peril. Filtering out high and low lights blurs obstacles into their surroundings. You could be on a highway to a danger zone and never even know it.

Creatures of comfort

By design, polarized lens alter how you see the world. How much more so do our preconceptions contribute to the polarization of society? By screening out the glare, we run the risk of extinguishing the brilliance of an idea. Furthermore, warning signals of false information may be concealed. Any deviation from our beliefs generates unease and agitation. Our vision is focused on only what makes us comfortable.

The media’s great strength is its ability to inform and connect. But this lofty ideal has a negative underbelly. Like Pavlov’s dogs, we are drawn to what appeases our intellectual appetites. We truly believe we are enlightened, but in reality, we are placated — riveted to content that reinforces our inclinations. America’s melting pot is breaking into simmering caldrons of discontent.

IMHO — Resist the need to be coddled

Our latest bout of civil unrest shouldn’t come as any surprise. It’s not the first, nor will be the last. Throughout history, the one constant has been the quest to control our environment. Human beings instinctively crave power. Whether the mission is for domination or freedom, there isn’t much difference.

What is one to do when they are thirsting for accuracy? I can only propose the following strategy:

  • Consider the source of your information. Scroll down to the bottom and Google the author or organization. Check the date of publication to see if the data is current. Investigate who funds the studies presented to validate their data.
  • Make sure what you’re reading is news and not an advertisement. If there is any pitch to purchase a product or a discount code provided, someone is making money and their objectivity is tainted.
  • Don’t fall prey to emotional headlines. Claims of “You won’t believe this!” or “Guess what happened next!” are clear indicators of what you are about to read lacks any true substance.
  • Seek out contrasting viewpoints. How can you defend a position without knowing what the opposition may be?
  • ABOVE ALL THE REST —PRACTICE EMPATHY. It’s time stop demonizing those whose beliefs differ from our own.

We need to rise up above passive consumerism. Counteract the coddling by exercising our minds. Be discerning. Hold everyone’s truths to be self-evident and resist the urge to judge. Maybe then we can achieve our pursuit of happiness.

A Mother’s Tale: Shielding and Letting Go

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Photo Credit: Flckr Commons

Once again, it was thrust upon us.

My sons and I were watching television and soon realized “IT” was going to be part of the storyline. Our lighthearted summer romp through The Hamptons was referencing a significant anniversary in the life of its main characters, a pair of brothers. Being the shrewd (and somewhat rabid) TV viewer that I am, I was able to quickly deduce the meaning of the upcoming fictional date.

Intuitively, I scrutinized my boys’ expressions to see if they had caught on. One of them readjusted his relaxed posture to more formal pose; the other shifted a bit in his chair. What used to take effort had now become instinctual. A narrative meant to tug at the heartstrings of most viewers was going to twist and turn ours. All three of us braced ourselves accordingly.

It had been 25 years since the death of their (the main characters’) mother.

“Shit!” I thought for seemingly the thousandth time. For a few years after we lost my husband, I would sidetrack my boys’ attention away from the television when such a plot development occurred. Sometimes, I would “accidentally” change the channel. “Oops!” I’d exclaim in my best, pseudo-innocent voice. Such tactics can only work for so long.


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Source: Giphy

The difficulties escalate this time of year.  My maternal eye views every Father’s Day themed commercial as a dart aimed squarely at my children. I would like to stand in front of them like Wonder Woman, deftly deflecting the onslaught of paternal imagery with a PING! and a POW! of my magic bracelets.  I’d encase both of them entirely in chainmail, if possible, to repel the wily projectiles that made it past me.

Regrettably, I haven’t always made the best decisions when it came to exposing my sons to unsuitable material. Case in point: I took both my sons to see the movie, ‘The Express’ mere months after losing their father. It was a film about Ernie Davis, the first African-American to win the Heisman Trophy. We were a football-obsessed family, so this should have been an enjoyable, but relatively uneventful weekend outing. What I carelessly overlooked is that Davis dies shortly after being drafted by the NFL. Of leukemia!!! Not my wisest parental decision.


I know it’s completely unrealistic, but I have often fantasized about a process where a cable customer could create a personalized warning system. A subscriber would enter whatever topics offended their sensibilities or damaged their emotional well-being. Shows would be subsequently scanned and customized alerts would appear when necessary. In the case of our household, they would read:

Caution, the following content contains scenes either depicting or referencing the death of one or more parent.

VIEWER DISCRETION IS ADVISED


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In the movie, ‘A Knight’s Tale,’ it is a woman who constructs the breastplate that best guards the heart of Sir Ulrich. It is lightweight, flexible, but durable. He is able to joust without unnecessary constraints. I used to be my sons’ blacksmith. The sole designer of their shields. But they are now young men. They must forge their own suitable armour.

In the end, the hero of the movie winds up being overburdened by his defense mechanisms. His metallic safeguards, no matter how accommodating they once were, become too rigid for him to continue. The newly christened knight discards his gauntlet and faces his final opponent unmasked, unshielded, and exposed.  Ultimately, he is victorious over the enemy that challenges his rightful place in society.

Whatever fortifications my sons select – whether they are walls, moats, or armour – it needs to be an individual choice. It is up to them to determine if they want to erect barricades. They alone elect whether to build them up or tear them down and when. As much as I may desire to, I can’t protect them anymore.

And so, tonight we will turn the TV on again. Will our viewing choices be friendly to our little family? Maybe. Maybe not. A strong fatherly lead could induce a wave of melancholy in my sons. A commercial featuring an affectionate husband might strike a chord with me. It’s impossible to predict. Unless we choose to live a life of solitary confinement, complete avoidance is impractical and not at all feasible. We will each weigh our options. We will measure our selections against our defenses. Hopefully, at least for now, we won’t be found wanting.

Epilogue to: What About Meredith?

Once upon a time, she was me…

ICYMI: Here is the link to my previous post.

Well the two-part season finale has come and gone. IMHO, Grey’s conclusion was honest, and perceptive throughout both episodes. Not only regarding Meredith, but those surrounding her, including friends; his sister, Amelia; and even April Kepner. In fact, the episodes could have accurately been entitled “Portraits of Grief.” How one handles the loss of a loved one is not an A-to-B-to-C progression. It is multifaceted. It has twists, turns, and double backs. It rarely stays the same.

Of course, we were riveted by the young couple and their unborn child involved in a horrific accident: Can they be rescued? Who will be the hero? Will they survive? Romance in all its complexities was portrayed by the Richard-Catherine story line: How do two, strong-willed individuals compromise enough to commit to one another? But the underlying current was grief — in all its guts and glory.

We soon learn the Meredith packed up the kids and slipped away in the middle of the night. Gone for a year, we are shown snippets of how her friends deal with her absence. At first they are worried, then frantic. A little pissed off; most of them resign themselves to Meredith being Meredith. What she, the new widow, failed to understand is a concept that took me a while to realize: you are not alone in your loss and are now a role model for how to grieve. Your closest companions, family, in-laws, and colleagues have lost someone as well and are unsure of how to handle it. They need to see that you are OK, that you are coping, moving on — surviving — before they can as well. In a twisted way, their lack of composure is comforting; at least it was for me.

It demonstrated that my husband’s life resonated with others, that he mattered, that he wouldn’t be forgotten.

This is not to say I don’t admire Meredith for her selfishness. I am actually jealous. Her kids aren’t of school age. She had the financial resources to disappear. It was a luxury that few widows have, but secretly crave. All in all, it was a perfect metaphor for the sense of suspended animation you are in for a least a year. The world continues to rotate; life goes on, no matter how enveloped in grief you are. She was able to get off the infamous carousel for a while and just breathe.

Amelia’s grief demonstrated how loss is dealt with when it is initially denied. As the damaged sister, she had her walls in place. She’s been through this before. (father, lover, baby) She didn’t need any help. She was just fine, thank you. Only when she teetered on the edge of losing sobriety, did she finally cry out for support. As I hoped Grey’s would do, she angrily confronts Meredith about not having the chance to say goodbye to her brother. My husband had three sisters, just like Derek Shepherd. Only one was able to speak her farewell to him at the hospital. This was a moment in time that was of utmost importance to her and would have devastated her if it was prevented.

Meredith’s reaction was equally revealing. She breaks down in tears after Amelia leaves. Why such a response? Did she feel guilty? Unjustly accused? Probably a little bit of both. But in that scene, the audience is shown a key component of grief. 365 days— whether they are in reality or the television universe — are but a moment in the life of a widow. Emotions can well up and over at any time. They may or may not make “sense.” Every so often, they are uncontrollable.

Even April and Jackson were caught up in the cavalcade of grief. After losing their child, April runs off to a combat zone to channel her anguish, leaving Jackson behind to grieve alone. She comes back recharged, but different. “I like the new April,” Bailey tells a skeptical Catherine. Jackson later tells April that while he is happy for her new sense of purpose, he did and continues to feel abandoned in their supposedly shared heartache. Dealing with the loss of a loved one, especially a child, is partially a cooperative experience. When someone in the grief collective opts out and decides to go it alone, the rest are left feeling forsaken. The processing of their sorrow may be incomplete. Will their marriage survive this trial? We are left to ponder for the duration of the summer.

These story lines aptly portrayed the ripple effect of death. Losing someone close to you, whether it be a treasured friend or cherished loved one, affects everyone differently — but continually. Grief is both private and public, intimate and communal. It is ugly in its brutality and beautiful in its poignancy. Bravo Grey’s Anatomy. Thank you for getting it right.