Perceptions, Deceptions, Misperceptions

By Sy Schechtman

Consider the bald man combing his hair..... Well, the almost bald man. He carefully nurtures a few remaining strands of hair over his nearly bald pate, very artfully, especially toward the front of his scalp, so that people who are shorter then he may imagine an almost shock of hair. And then he hair sprays the result so that any mischievous gusts of wind will not be able to disturb his hopefully careful camouflage. Generally he then feels reasonably comfortable with his appearance, unless that errant burst of wind undoes his deception. And then he may be somewhat embarrassed. But he is only hurting himself by this futile attempt to hide this cosmetic failing of baldness. Indeed, he should be able comfort himself with the soothing myth that baldness in men is a mark of extreme virility!

A very long time ago the Biblical preacher, Koheleth, denounced excessive pride in one's appearance. "Vanity of vanity, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities, all is vanity." Besides excessive regard for one's looks the priest Koheleth was also denouncing excessive preoccupation with material gain which perhaps could lead to sin. He was at that time also probably denouncing the beginning of the cosmetics trade, for the Bible does mention briefly some resort to ointments and coloring material to adorn one's body in the act of love making (Song of Songs). Today we have gone somewhat beyond that tentative beginning; our cosmetics and beauty enhancing industry is now a multi billion dollar affair. When I was actively practicing dentistry, indeed, the total amount spent on oral health was less than in the beauty parlor. Now dentistry is catching up, mainly with emphasis on the aesthetics of one's smile; capping front teeth, whitening front teeth, and straightening them. Not necessarily to improve oral health as much as appearance.

Vanity within reason is not a negative thing. But beauty is only skin deep and when it becomes vaingloriousness, the excessive pursuit of style and fashion to impress others, one can become a caricature of one's true self. And other people sense this. As Robert Burns put it several centuries ago in his inimitable Scotch dialect, "Oh wad some power the giftie gie us/To see oursels as others see us!/ It wad frae monie a blunder free us/ an' foolish notion." This homespun logic has been admirably updated into current psychological dogma by Will Maslow, who divided our emotional sensorium into three unequal parts-the Good Me, the Bad Me, and the Not Me. A well adjusted person would not be blinded by his "Good Me", that part of him(or her) that everyone praised due to one's obvious achievements and positive traits. And he or she would be aware-perhaps dimly-of the Bad Me, those shortcomings that were part of the list for overcoming. Bad golf swing, not enough income, improve dancing ability, and stop forgetting important birthdates and anniversaries for wife and kids and mother and father....etc, etc.

However, there is one rather serious deception that we are all guilty of at times---the Bad Me. That part of oneself that is suppressed or totally denied, that can be painful to admit when dragged to the surface. That behavior of yours that was rude or supercilious, those times where you were boastful and verbose, when your attire was utterly inappropriate, when you overreacted to a pretty woman's flattery, when your table manners in company were boorish and vulgar and when your driving ability made one fretful if not downright panicky. In short not the paragon of perfection you really assumed everyone routinely admired!

But, lo! There is a whole array of sensation impinging on our consciousness beyond the mere subjective emotional gymnastics of our vanity. And the bottom line perception affirming these more cosmic impressions is that "seeing is believing". But the hard core "reality" beyond this actual, first hand observation is that this reality can be still be very subjective, even at times differing among other participant viewers. That to some extent we see what we want to see. In legal matters, indeed, one eye witness may not be enough to corroborate the commission of a crime. In biblical law two witnesses had to affirm the criminal deed. But let us go beyond the differing perceptions of individuals and look at people as a group and their differing reactions, as Plato did over 2500 years ago in his analogy of the cave. That most people at that time lived huddled as if in semi darkness in a cave, and saw only by the reflected light of a fire cast on the cave wall. Mainly shadows reflected on the wall rather dimly by passing animal and human figures. But occasionally some adventurous souls, going beyond the dim cave confining existence of their limited live, found the brilliant sunshine beyond stunning, almost overwhelming, and the basis for utterly new conceptions of reality. Of course many only hesitatingly and slowly left the gloomy security of the cave; but there were others who overreacted exuberantly. Slowly, of course, the moderate mean was found and society took a measured step forward, after penalizing, perhaps, the extremes on both ends of the emotional spectrum.

But the extremes still linger on, coloring our emotional horizons. Our perspective, alas, can be not so much faulty as curiously mistimed, being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and then slowly adjusting to the new trend or long term reality without realizing the cyclical nature of events and human emotions, that keep ever fluctuating up and down and many times obscure the basic long term trend, whether positive or negative. Thus some deplored the automobile and still loved and kept using the horse and buggy, some will still not fly in airplanes, and many kept buying stocks at stratospheric prices when old fashioned earnings were considered merely sophomoric in the face of the obvious golden future ahead---somewhere, sometime. Despite themselves these people will still benefit to some extent from broad long range changes but will forever be in the back of the parade, "Johnny come latelys" uncomfortable and only on board toward the end of the ride. And now that they have just learned to program their VHS TV recorders, DVD technology is pushing them into partial obsolescence. This is also painfully true in photography. Film photography is verging on oblivion, and the bulk of the picture taking populace is ever so reluctant to climb on the digital bandwagon.

But there are times when the current trend is merely a fad, finally fading as the current fashion moves on to the next stylish mode or reverting back to comfortable prior positions and attitudes. Way back in history was the tulip mania, when fragile tulip bulbs were bid to absurd levels for "follow the leader reasons"-it must be right because all were doing it. And, as we all know from current painful experience, the stock market always goes to extremes, up or down, and getting in and out at the right time is as graceful, and financially fruitful, an act as the fine line art of balancing on a high wire tight rope. Which brings us to another current perception and/or possible deception. The now the famous ( infamous?) WMD enigma, as great a now you see it now you don't piece of psychic legerdemain as history has ever devised. Nobody doubted the validity of Saddam's intent and the content of these dangerous agents in his country. Eighteen times in the last 12 years he was cited for violating UN resolutions to destroy these noxious weapons, and Hans Blix asserted when he was allowed back in recent months that he too was certain that in time his team would find hard evidence of them once again. For, as of a few years ago the UN inspection teams-under Hans Blix direction- had listed several tons of chemical and biological agents to be destroyed which Hussein never claimed to have destroyed. And have turned up not present or accounted for---as of now.

No doubt many of us wanted to believe in their existence, and thus in the moral validity in justifying a territorial foothold in the oil rich Middle East and the overthrow of a vicious despot. The example of Gulf War One and its easy military conquest was no doubt our hopeful guide-which was attained-- but not the turbulent sequel in the problems of the post war occupation. Many more lives than expected have been lost and President Bush's popularity and reelection prospects considerably dimmed. Were our optimistic pre war Gulf Two perceptions really deceptions due to greatly exaggerating these growing stockpiles of biological, chemical and possibly nuclear arsenals? Is this similar to the gross exaggeration of the Vietnam Tonkin Gulf incident in President Lyndon Johnson's administration, which led to a great increase in our troop strength in Vietnam, and our ultimate humiliation there? Let us hope history will not repeat this tragic scenario, and that our current dubious perception, which is of a deception, is a misperception that will still allow us to vindicate our actions. And at least give us the respectable fig leaf to continue to justify our continued stance there to build a state that will ultimately be perceived as free, indigenously Iraqi, not fettered with the baggage of fundamentalist hate and anti American, and anti Semitic venom.

And what of that balding fellow, who, undoubtedly resembling our author, is engaged in the deception of hopefully hiding his balding pate? Resignedly he shrugs and remembers Shakespeare's "All the world's a stage"; it hurts no one with this little deception and builds confidence, and allows him, like Diogenes of old, to continually and fearlessly shine his lamp of truth seeking light all around, confident of the dashing good looks he manifests and the abundant "Good Me" in him that guides his relentless search for unequivocal truth free of distortion, deception and naïve misperception.