Archive for Monday, August 13, 2012


Everyday Life: The world we make

August 13, 2012


A Facebook friend of mine saw some UFOs recently. In fact, he photographed a bunch of them and posted them on his Facebook page.

My husband, a serious amateur astronomer, took one look and said, nah, those are weather balloons.

My friend’s posts got a lot of comments. A few people had conventional explanations. Most agreed that this was proof of Something Out There. But nobody suggested that these lights were ghosts. Or divinities (major or minor, take your pick).

Imagine these lights in, say, 14th century England instead of 21st century America. Ghosts! faeries! angels! would have been the talk of the taverns. Not extraterrestrials or weather balloons.

We only see what we are prepared to see. Extraterrestrials or weather balloons in one culture, supernatural creatures in another. We fit things into the slots already prepared for them, and can’t take in the world any other way.

Yes, over time the categories shift; some things are added, some are subtracted; some combine and some separate. But the basic process, while it has fluidity, remains the same: we can only take in what is, in some sense, already there. We can’t help it. If we didn’t do this, our minds wouldn’t function at all.

The 13th century Chinese monk Wumen wrote “In the rice, there is sand.” Indeed. Most of the time most of our thoughts are reasonably accurate — that’s the rice. If you see a red light, stop. If you see a green light and nobody is barreling through the intersection, go. It’s so highly improbable that a red or green light in that shape and that position is anything other than a traffic signal that we can ignore the possibility. The model fits well enough.

But there is sand in the rice. Inescapably so. You are so pleased that Jerry Sandusky has taken a personal interest in your son. You are so lucky that Bernie Madoff invited you to invest with him. Your model of a child molester does not include a guy like Sandusky. Your model of a thief does not include a guy like Madoff.

We see what we are prepared to see. We don’t see what we’re not prepared to see. And it’s really hard to let our preconceptions go.

Not only is there sand in the rice, but it’s not clear that they are distinct. Nothing in this tremendously complicated system of categories we use to navigate our way is ever exactly right. Any image we have of thieves, murderers and child molesters will be both incomplete (missing some thief, murderer or child molester) and too expansive (including someone who is not a thief, a murderer, a child molester). Even traffic laws are ambiguous: Define “full stop.”

So my friend clung to his vision of extraterrestrials. And I clung to my certainty of: Nope, no extraterrestrials here. The world we live in is the world we make. Until, suddenly, it isn’t.

— Judith Roitman can be reached at


Ken Lassman 5 years, 10 months ago

The mystery of awareness is fathomless and full of surprises. My eyes see a rainbow by virtue of being placed in relationship between the sun on one side and the rain on the other, making the rainbow I see unique to my eyes as I am the only being in that particular point of triangulation--all others see a slightly different rainbow. But this is the case with everything I see, feel, touch, hear, smell, and yes, think about. The landscape I experience is unique to my station in the landscape; what I hear from the bird at my bird feeder is slightly different from what my dog by my side hears, etc.

I have a bird feeder based on my reaction to seeing and hearing birds, being around other folks who have bird feeders, etc. and thus I have changed the bird's awareness by introducing a food source into its world. Such is the stuff of awareness-as-relationships. The more relationships you develop in your field of awareness, whether it be a bird, a dog, a rainbow or another person, the richer the world is. Those relationships keep changing every day, which keeps those "categories" in our minds from getting set in stone, if we're lucky. All we have to do is keep a fresh eye, ear, nose,skin, mouth and mind tuned to the ever changing universe!

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