The Tapestry We Mistakenly Believe is Reality

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.

4 thoughts on “The Tapestry We Mistakenly Believe is Reality”

  1. Hi Roger,
    I especially. like the last sentence -A life devoted to a mutual search for truth we know to be forever and elusive, is a life of uncertainty and ambiguity, but ultimately, the tapestry that emerges is far more vivid, and glorious. Thanks for writing.

    Judy Archer

  2. Hi Roger,
    I have to share more of my response to your piece.
    I am currently taking a series of Creative Writing classes at the University of Toronto. One of my biggest reasons for wanting to write a memoir, was to figure out how come I have not followed in the footsteps of my father who committed suicide. My father tried to commit suicide when I was eighteen. I had flunked out my first year of university because I decided to do Costume Design,, (and made costumes too) for the Red and White Revue, all leading up to February, so I barely had time to go to do any homework. I was my father’s only visitor in the hospital because my mother could not stand being around someone who kept trying to kill himself. Then I knew there was nothing I could do as his eldest daughter to prevent him succeeding in taking his own life about eighteen years later.
    I did a lot of genealogical research to see if I could discover the roots of his difficulty. He was an alcoholic and depressed which was not helped by his drinking. Last year I did find his maternal grandfather who abandoned and or divorced three different wives in the 1800’s, but still that was not the whole story. All this to say that your last sentence makes a big difference to me now releasing that search, and still discovering who I really am, beyond my father, and now beyond my forty-seven year marriage to Michael Jones, now that he is no longer with us on the earth. So a big thank you from a deeper place, for your thoughtful article, and all your work around suicide prevention, and celebrating life.

  3. Your writing is enlightening as always. Complete consensus!
    I believe the same thing.
    Truth is more like a process which evolves from seed to cotton, from cotton to piece of cloth, then a shirt as Hegel would have put it, seeing it static makes the truth fragmented. A thing in part even if be true is untrue because it misses some parts. Indeed we all abstract reality in different ways depending on our religious, cultural, linguistic, socioeconomic and philosophical backgrounds!
    Being skeptic, that is, knowing and accepting the limits of human senses and capacity of reasoning is wise and better than dogmatism becuase it leaves the space for learning new things and seeing the world through new perspectives. Intellectual arrogance is when one begins to believe that he/she knows it all, which leaves no space for learning since all is already known. One needs to remain intellectually humble and skeptic by keeping arrogance in check and knowing that no human can just know it all. With hundreds of cognitive biases interferring in human reason as research suggests it is not possible to know it all.
    Anyways, I love reading your thoughts, you are a geniune human. This world still functions somehow because still there are people who are not self-centred and have capacity to act selflessly. Stay safe friend!

  4. Roger, thank you for another accurate assessment of the human condition. It seems to me that consciousness is primarily for supporting the survival of the species that we happen to be. Homo sapiens, the language enabled mammal, processes sense experience in terms of the symbol system that we have learned within our default culture. From the get-go that culture certainly entails assumptions that are toxic, and others which are accurate/useful only in certain circumstances. From a linguistic point of view it is easy to conclude that our ability to formulate true accounts of ourselves and of a vast world is fraught with risk, and error. Nevertheless we persevere. Nurturing, cultivating community is the only way forward as far as I am concerned. You gift of insight is illumination for my “blind spot.” We need one another.

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