One of the most profound lessons I have extracted from nearly 20 years answering calls (11,000 or more) on the Suicide Prevention Lifeline is that each of us constructs an image—a tapestry—we truly believe represents reality, but turns out to be ambiguous, misleading, and very often wrong.
Despite its extraordinary abilities, our brains are easily fooled. Since it cannot take in the vast sensory inputs bombarding it every moment, our brain must pick and choose what it notices. As a result, everything we know—about ourselves, other people, and the events of our lives—is based on little more than bits and pieces of the world!
The human brain is superb at organizing those tumultuous oral, visual, olfactory, sensory, emotional, and myriad other inputs and weaving them into thoughts, ideas, and stories—and deciding what it believes is true about the world. However, because the images and stories we conjure are built on a precarious foundation of disparate sensory inputs, they are often inaccurate, and even wrong. I’ll often ask audiences, “How many of you ever believed a story because of a social media post, only to soon discover it is completely wrong?” When I do, every hand goes up.
Recently, my suggestion that our brains often conjure false beliefs and misleading realities, prompted two questions: “How can I prevent my brain from coming to false conclusions?” and “If everyone is wrong, who is right?”
You can’t prevent your brain from frequently coming to inaccurate conclusions. It has no option but to construct your world based on incomplete information. What you can and should do, whenever you are faced with dissonant information, is pay attention. Don’t dismiss disparate ideas and opinions without first tearing into them for subtle new ways of seeing. If you are open to them, those moments hold the possibility of surprising, invaluable, new insights.
I reminded the second questioner that not everything we know is wrong. Every person and situation we encounter holds fragments of truth. One of our greatest challenges involves discerning fragments of truth available in every moment and weaving them into a more brilliant, growing tapestry. Parker Palmer suggests that truth is “a covenant we make with each other, and with knowing itself, to explore the world together…opening ourselves to many perspectives…and allowing the possibility of being rendered anew each and every moment as we encounter the world with open minds and hearts.”
When we weave a tapestry from beliefs we are certain are true and complete, it nurtures a life ultimately incomplete and lifeless. A life devoted to a mutual search for truth we know to be forever and eternally elusive, is a life of uncertainty and ambiguity, but ultimately, the tapestry that emerges is far more vivid, vibrant, and glorious.