False Perceptions: what is real?

A few weeks ago, James Williams, a 21-year-old WakeTech student, was fatally shot in an otherwise peaceful neighborhood in a small town outside of Raleigh. Moments later, Curtis Lee, 24, called 911 to report the shooting. During the phone conversation, Lee told dispatchers he shot Williams because “He drove up, man — and I don’t know anybody from this area, so, whoever he is he shouldn’t have came over here.” He said that Williams had pulled into his driveway. As he started to get out of his car, Lee shot him. When police arrived, they found Williams in his car, dead from a shot to the torso, according to the News & Observer. The newspaper reported that Williams likely pulled up to Lee’s house by mistake, as a car parked at the home was very similar to a car driven by one of Williams’ friends who lives on the same street. Lee was charged with murder and taken to the Wake County Jail.

This is the saddest news story I have read in quite a while, and I come across a lot of sad news. I don’t want to pretend like I understand this situation, because I don’t. I refuse to begin judging Lee based on the facts of this account. I don’t know what may have happened to him the last time a stranger pulled up into his yard. I don’t know what other things he may have seen when he looked out at Williams that added to his picture of the situation. I don’t know what he had been doing earlier that day that contributed to his frame of mind. I don’t know any of that. But I do know that this is a very sad story; one that leads me to grieve for these families and for our world.

Reading this story — and then listening to Lee’s simple, candid conversation with the 911 operators — forced me to wonder what kind of perception he has of the world. Is it characterized by fearfulness: a world where everyone unknown is an enemy intent on doing me harm? Is it characterized by competition? Are other people seen as equally valuable, or is value based on how much I know and understand about an individual’s story? We all look at the world from unique perspectives. More often than not, we let external influences take control of our perspectives; they begin to overlay the glass we see the world through and, eventually, to define what we understand to be reality. Whether these perceptions we have are at all related to actual reality becomes irrelevant. What matters is perception.

Obviously perception played a huge role in the story above, and I hope working to piece together the varying perceptions of those involved will be an important part of the investigation that follows. How do we keep our own perceptions of the world from becoming so skewed we can no longer see clearly?

“I came into this world for judgement so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.”
— Jesus

John 9:39, NRSV

I thought about my own perception of reality. I love the infinitely complex, yet wonderfully simple way the natural world fits together. Life is simple. It is about food, family and community. God made it simple, but we make it much more complex than that. I sometimes kid myself into thinking that, as I continue to seek to serve God in whatever way I can, that I am comfortable living in this barest of all realities. Then I start to think about what that really means. Does this mean I can be at peace with my situation even if my income does not allow me to save for retirement like I would like to, or to save at all? Does this mean I can be content with drawing closer to God even if I am a complete failure at every task I attempt? Does this mean I am satisfied with my life even if my reputation is fallaciously destroyed? Does this mean I really believe that lying beggar downtown is created in the image of God; that he has a goodness in him that is longing to come out, and I have a responsibility to be Jesus for him so that he might overcome his own false perceptions of reality?

I would like to answer yes to all of these questions, to say that I am content to live within the actual reality that forms the foundation of creation, but I don’t always know that I can. I do care about maintaining a comfortable standard of living for my family. I do care about presenting myself to others in a positive light so that I might enjoy their fellowship. I do care about keeping a clean credit report, about earning college degrees and receiving the approval of those who have come before me. My question then becomes: how much of this comes out of a desire to responsibly execute my own free will, and how much has been laid upon me by the conventional wisdom of the world? After all, Jesus has called us to rise above conventional wisdom and to live in the world as it really is; to live in spirit and in truth.

Conventional wisdom is a culture’s way of seeing the world that gives advantage to those in power and defends the social status quo. People internalize this “wisdom” and live out of it, unless they are able to see a different kind of wisdom. Marcus Borg identifies these characteristics of conventional wisdom:

  • It domesticates reality for the convenience of those in power.
  • It is based on reward and punishment.
  • It is a world of hierarchy and boundaries.
  • It produces a life of anxious striving and conformity.
  • The spell of conventional wisdom produces self-preoccupation and selfishness.
  • Conventional wisdom views God as a lawgiver and judge and sees the religious life as a set of demanding requirements.
  • Conventional wisdom is not confined to a particular society or time; it pervades all traditions.

Jesus spoke of conventional wisdom as “the broad way” and God’s wisdom as “a narrow way.” He depicted God not as a judge but as a compassionate being who offered cosmic generosity. He spoke of the kingdom of God in parables that described God’s kingdom as a place populated by marginalized people — nobodies — not by those with wealth and power. Jesus was repeatedly criticized for being host to meals that included sinners and tax collectors. These meals were enacted parables of inclusion that subverted the conventional wisdom of privilege, purity, and exclusion.

Richard Hester and Kelli Walker-Jones
“Know Your Story and Lead with it: The Power of Narrative in Clergy Leadership,” 46-47
Herndon, Virg: The Alban Institute, 2009

Prompted by a school project but pushed on by my own interest, I have begun to look at the emerging field of Narrative Leadership. At its core, Narrative Leadership prompts people to begin looking at the world, looking at others, and especially looking at one’s own life, as stories that are being lived out. These stories have recurring themes, but they are constantly open to change. Whether we recognize it or not, our own story directly influences the way we understand the snippets of story we read about the people we come in contact with. These stories combine to form our perception of the world, but as anyone who has ever been touched by a powerful novel knows, every book always has at least two stories to tell; usually many more. Adopting a curious stance and digging into the stories of others allows us to dig into our own story in ways we haven’t been able to experience before. Retelling our stories, allowing others to reinterpret them for us, listening to their stories and piecing the complex narrative together allows us keep our own interpretations in check with reality, to bring them into sharper focus and to develop a clearer image of the world as it really is.

Stories are best when they are shared.

What sort of space gives us the best chance to hear soul truth and follow it? A space defined by principles and practices that honor the soul’s nature and needs. What is that nature, and what are those needs? My answer draws on the only metaphor I know that reflects the soul’s essence while honoring its mystery: the soul is like a wild animal

Like a wild animal, the soul is tough, resilient, resourceful, savvy, and self sufficient: it knows how to survive in hard places. …

Yet, despite its toughness, the soul is also shy. Just like a wild animal, it seeks safety in the dense underbrush, especially when other people are around. If we want to see a wild animal, we know the last thing we should do is go crashing through the woods yelling for it to come out.

Unfortunately, community in our culture too often means a group of people who go crashing through the woods together, scaring the soul away. … We scare off all the soulful things, like respectful relationships, goodwill, and hope.

Parker J. Palmer
“A Hidden Wholeness,” 58-59
San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004

If this discussion has turned into a pot-luck dinner of thoughts that you have no taste for, I apologize. I’m not really sure where I’m going with all of this right now, but I thought the first step in making any sense of it was to get it out of my head and into words.

It’s far too messy in there to keep anything straight.

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About David Anderson, Jr.

I'm a wandering pilgrim anchored in the Baptist tradition, tossed about by the anabaptist current. I am a minister at Pullen Memorial Baptist Church and a recent graduate of Campbell Divinity School. I am the husband of a beautiful woman, and the father of a blond-haired boy. I am a work in progress, struggling to work out my own salvation with fear and trembling. View all posts by David Anderson, Jr.

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