Reality and perception

​A customer is rude to you at work. You’ve done everything you can for them. More than you should of in fact. But still, they’re angry and you are the recipient of that anger. They tell you you’re worthless. How they’re going to get you fired. The customer’s response to your goodwill upsets and offends you. So you meet anger with anger. Energy with energy. Heat with heat.

I’ve been reading Pierre Hadot’s The Inner Citadel. It’s an exploration of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations and Stoicism in general. Hadot discusses something called a value judgement.

We can break the situation above into two parts. In part one, the customer is rude, discourteous and ungrateful. He completely ignores the things you’ve done to satisfy and appease him. In part two, you recognise this, and it annoys you. It makes you feel disrespected and angry.

Part one is reality. It’s the description of the situation without any emotional tinge. The customer has disregarded your efforts and is being rude. Part two is what Hadot calls a value judgement. Because of the customer’s rudeness, you become upset and angry yourself.

I’ve just walked you through a stoic exercise of perception. The idea of the exercise is to separate objective reality from the value judgements we make about objective reality. 

Why is this so valuable? Because once you learn to separate objective reality from the judgements we make about it, you gain control. You can begin to see the truth of what Epictetus said: that if you are offended, your mind is complicit in the provocation. That the things you feel are not a result of reality. They are a consequence of the values we allocate to what happens.

Congenital analgesia is the inability to feel pain. Which may sound good. But in fact, it’s incredibly dangerous. Pain is a feedback mechanism. A warning system that prevents us from doing damage to ourselves. Someone with congenital analgesia could put there hand in a fire and feel nothing. But despite their not feeling anything, their hand still gets burned. Their body is still severely damaged. They may not feel it. But it still affects them.

The inability to feel pain and the separation of objective reality from the values we attribute to it are linked. 

What are some of your pet ideas? Some of your cherished theories and beliefs? Perhaps you believe in God. Perhaps you think that Muslims are cruel and violent. Perhaps you think that wealth and connections are the only way to ascend in this world. Perhaps you believe that wealth and connections are inconsequential to your ability to thrive. Perhaps you believe that only idiots read comics. Or that only intelligent people read The Daily Telegraph.

In a way, what you believe doesn’t really matter. What reality tells us about your beliefs is the important thing.

But reality doesn’t care about your attachment to an idea. Reality doesn’t care if you’ve thought that since you were a child. Reality doesn’t care that your identity is formed around this one theory. Reality doesn’t care if a billion people champion a position. Nor does it care if only one person believes in it. Reality’s only criteria is truth.

In the case of the patient with congenital analgesia, reality doesn’t care that they can’t feel the burn. Their body is still going to be negatively affected.

Why am I telling you this?

Stoicism teaches that objective reality is all that matters. That we are the ones who define a situation as good or bad. That we are the ones who allow ourselves to feel angry or happy or sad in response to a situation. That we are the ones who fool ourselves. And it teaches that much pain and suffering arses from the refusal to see that. The unwillingness to see reality naked and unadorned. 

Stoicism advocates minimising the disconnect between perception and reality. Striving for the closest match between the two. Why? Revisit the situation from earlier. The rude, angry, disrespectful customer. If you focus on reality, you see how unkind and illogical the man is being. And because you recognise the difference between objective reality and the values we attribute to it, you can choose how to respond

You can choose to be angry and rude too. Or you can choose to meet his anger with invincible kindness and infinite patience. Extrapolate to the rest of your life, and you realise that you can choose to never be controlled by anger again. Or to never let jealousy overwhelm you.

When you separate reality and perception, you realise how much more control you have over your own life and experience.