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June 2012
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What we think we see isn't always so

By DICK USHER Community Columnist

Every day last summer at the cabin in Boulder, Colo., I hiked up Ski Road with Bud, our Beagle mix.

It was a soothing end to the day just before dusk settled. The altitude was near 9,300 feet and provided a dazzling view of mountains and valleys in three directions.

A few days after we began the walks, I noticed a tent pitched 30-40 paces to the left. It was a camouflage canvas-type tent - old fashioned in appearance. The kind that dated back to the post WWII days, and the kind I noticed in the Army-Navy store on Kentucky Avenue when I was 12 years old.

"Old," I thought, or maybe it was a kind of retro house tent. It was larger than the veritable Army "pup-tent." My dad called them "house-tents" back then.

It was not so unusual to see tents in view of Ski Road. This was Roosevelt National Forest land, and primitive camping was allowed. Some campers would set up a campsite and return for overnights only on weekends.

I was very mindful of not snooping into anyone's camping experience, so I did not stare. As weeks went by, however, I became more and more curious about that old tent.

When my cousin and her husband came to visit, we hiked up the road. I explained, "There's been a tent up here for over a month and I've seen no sign of life about. You'll see it off to the left when we get to our stopping place. I've been trying not to stare, but I sure am curious about it."

They smiled and nodded. I was eager to share the mystery with them. They were experienced campers/hikers from Los Alamos, N.M.

"There it is," I said, "to the left, just up from those Ponderosas." They peered without reaction.

"See," I repeated, "across from those rocks." Again they gave no reaction.

"OK," I said, "let's climb a little higher to be level with the tent."

"Do you see it now?" I asked.

"Not really, no," said my cousin rather sheepishly.

"Do you see it?" I asked her husband.

"No," he said, "I don't."

There was no tent. There never had been. There was a rock outcropping shaped vaguely like a tent - it even had a shadow that I had been seeing as the tent-flap door left slightly open.

What was going on here?

This scene took place in relatively static mountain terrain and yet my views differed wildly from those in our small party of hikers. I believe that this discrepancy is played over and over again in all walks of life in far more serious and fitful ways.

Humans perceive. We do not simply react or respond to things that are the same for everyone. We bring our own personal meanings to an object or event or person or idea, and those meanings continually help create our experiences.

Nobody just "sees what is there" - we each are major players in the construction of our own reality from moment to moment.

My tent perception was real. I behaved accordingly. And, when persons who have my trust and respect accepted the reality of my perceptions and patiently waited while I examined some ill-fitting data about them, my perception was altered.

Encountering evidence to the contrary about the perception of a concrete thing in the environment, done with people you love, leads to a more useful and accurate view.

Altering perceptions about complex life issues such as love, belief, values, judgment, commitment and morality entails a much more difficult and lengthy process.

To understand, help, or instruct another, one needs to start with acknowledging how things "seem" to that person. Such "putting yourself in another's shoes" is a first step forward for positive change. It is called empathy.

Dick Usher grew up in Paducah and is a retired Murray State University professor. He lives with Mary, his wife of 52 years, on his granddad's old farm near Fairdealing, Ky.

Comments made about this article - 1 Total

chbeard posted on: Wednesday, June 18, 2014 1:36 PM

Title: What we think we see isn't always so.

That's why we need to live many years, so we have time to grow and change our minds about so many things, real and perceived.

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