What's Tony Thinking

Does Perception = Reality?


I remember the first time someone told me, “Perception is reality.” It was said with such knowing assurance, as if it were axiomatic. As if imparting the wisdom of a Zen master.

As it happens, the person pronouncing this great insight was the chairperson of a low-income housing provider, on whose Board I served. (A bit ironic given one of my recent blogs and mention of Seattle’s “Homelessness Industrial Complex.”) She meant that how our organization was perceived in the wider community was what mattered. I understood what she meant. I just wasn’t sure I agreed.

An inner voice protested. “I’m not sure I like where that is headed . . . isn’t reality . . . uh, reality?” Recall the line in I Samuel 16. “God does not look upon outward appearances. God looks upon the heart.”

My bit of re-education regarding perception being reality happened sometime way back in the ’90’s. Of course, since then reality seems to have become quite a bit more elusive and subject to daily re-definition, or as Kelly Ann Conway memorably put it, subject to “alternative facts.”

I recalled that incident when reading Peggy Noonan’s Saturday column titled, “Why We Can’t Move On From January 6.”

Having read the two reports issued last week by Senate committees on Capitol preparation for a possible insurrection, Noonan summarized how woefully unprepared the authorities were. Then, moving from the particular to the general, she wrote,

“What a disaster. Reading it, after the indignation subsides, you realize: This sounds like a lot of America now. You put on the outfit and walk around playing a role. You’re doing your best but you haven’t been you haven’t been properly managed, trained or equipped, and you’re not sure exactly what to do.

“So you walk forward and do your best. This is true in many professions — politics, business, medicine. These institutions are interested in ‘public facing,’ not ‘inner reality.’ They’re all about marketing and communications. Managers are rewarded not for training carefully but for training quickly.”

Noonan nails it. She nails what is, as she says, so widely the case these days.

Having bought the idea that perception is reality and marketing uber alles, every organization has upbeat, well-produced videos about how great they are. Each one has catchy logos with jazzy graphics and posted mission statements. Everyone wears clothing with the outfit’s name and colors. But when you try to find out if the work is actually being accomplished, or when you try to get someone to perform the advertised service, there’s often a disconnect. The smart, sharp plumber on the ad isn’t who shows up.

We’re so busy managing the perception that the reality has somehow been, well, overlooked.

The Capitol Police were in uniform. But none of their supervisors had prepped them for what was then all over the internet as a threat. They had little training for what they faced. No game plan for contingencies. They were on their own out there. The equipment they needed was locked in a bus somewhere, but no one knew where the key was.

“These institutions are interested in ‘public facing,’ not ‘inner reality.'”

Often, these days, the ‘public-facing’ is in the interest of perceived diversity — which may not exist at all in reality.

Churches aren’t immune from this kind of marketing, we’re just crappy at it. Which may be a blessing.

Perception — I’ll grant this much — is part of reality. But, in the end, reality is reality.


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