Perception - A way of regarding, understanding, or interpreting something; a mental impression.
Last month I went to a destination 50th birthday party. It was a small affair and although “I didn't want to go" I ended up getting on a plane and heading down south for the weekend. I never really want to go anywhere. But then, when I do, I am always happy that I went. I exist having the worst expectations for everything. A party, a job, a parent teacher conference, a school fundraiser, going to the supermarket, seeing neighbors on the street, getting out of bed in the morning, etc, etc, etc. It's just how I am wired. Plan for the worst and hope for the best. And you know what? "The worst" almost never happens. And 99 percent of the time (if I'm honest I can tell you that is 100 percent of the time) I'm glad I did whatever it was that I was loath to do. Because, if nothing else, I did something I was afraid to do and learned that nothing is as bad as I can make it in my mind. Over the years I have come to realize that all this not wanting to go out and try new things and be with others has at its base a deep seated sense of fear. Fear of people. Fear of the unknown. Fear of things that I'm not in control of. Fear of failure. Fear that people will see the real me and possibly run?
Sometimes I feel like I am being dragged through life. Like one of those little dogs that I see being pulled along, protesting and whining, scraping along the sidewalks of cities everywhere. These poor pups obviously don't want to go where they are being led. Once they realize where they are headed, they open their eyes wide in horror, stiffen their front legs, sit their butts firmly on the ground and prepare for battle. That's me, being dragged along the sidewalk of life. On my ass, rigid, fighting, snarling, protesting…against my will.
But lately, years into recovery, I'm sensing an internal shift. I see that this reluctant attitude does me no good. It's quite exhausting actually. For me and my poor husband. "I don't want to go, it's too far, too late, too early, too many people, too few people, I have a headache, don’t you have a headache? You're giving me a headache. Somebody somewhere is having a headache so we can't possibly go.” Eventually I almost always end up going and having a fine time. The good thing about being such a 24/7 Negative Nancy is that I'm always pleased when I do go out into the world and I don't die a slow and gruesome death. I mean compared to what my mind makes up is going to happen, everything always turns out, respectively, to be a grand old time.
So we went to this small birthday party down in Georgia and I'm really glad I went. The party was intimate, elegant and full of love. And while I was there I learned a lesson about perception that I'm sure never to forget.
When I got to my table for the post-cocktail dinner, I saw that I was seated next to one of my husband's friends from college. This man is highly accomplished, brilliant even. I knew all about his achievements from my husband but also from the newspapers. He has that level of accomplishment, newspaper level. So I was prepared not to like him. I planned to be aloof, chilly even. Basically I felt intimidated, but over the decades I have crafted this intimidation of mine to look like "yep, I'm cool" rather than "can somebody please help me?” I've discovered that confidence is a more comfortable facade for me than timidity. So I arrived at the table, nose in the air, fake English intonation at the ready, at the same time as my husband's friend Graham.
Graham, disarmingly, was lovely. He remembered meeting me years ago, remembered my children's names, he even pulled my chair out and said "after you”. Chivalry, apparently, is not dead after all. And guess what I was amazed to discover? This Graham guy is not only a respected and well known man, he is also a wonderful raconteur. He is quite friendly. Warm even! I had just assumed that we would be hearing all about his meteoric rise since college, his good deeds and philanthropic endeavors. I had erroneously imagined that he would dominate the dinner conversation, droning on endlessly about himself and his highly profiled life. But I was wrong. Graham, it turns out, can talk about anything. Georgia, food, current events, old college shenanigans, sports, travel, horses…I was immediately, and against my base instincts, quite charmed.
At the end of dinner we started talking about movies. Graham had recently seen a "worthwhile" show on Netflix. He had been riveted by this documentary and wanted to know if any of us had seen it. He was unable to remember the title but he started to explain the show's premise.
“It's about this weird guy who goes out west and basically buys a small town. Then he brings all these random people to that town and pays them to vote in local elections so that his town will have the majority of votes. If he gets the majority of votes, then he can start changing laws, making them favorable to him and his group. And this dude has this eminence grise working behind the scene, like his enforcer, like his henchman. So nothing can ever be pinned on him. His right hand man will take the fall for him if he gets busted for any of his illegal activities. It's fascinating” he concluded, "a real study of voting rights in America. It poses the question: does the constitution allow for self-governing communities to exist in the United States? It's also about property rights, immigration (because the guy who buys the town is not American), zoning laws, voter interference. I highly recommend it. Ugh!” he exclaimed in frustration, “if only I could only remember the name!”
“Is this a true story?” I asked. “Where did it happen?” “Out in California I think. No wait, Oregon somewhere” he replied.
Suddenly a lightbulb went off. “You're not talking about Wild Wild Country are you?” I asked, dumbstruck. “Yes!” Graham slapped his hand on the table. “That's it! Wild Wild Country on Netflix. It's a must see!”
I was amazed. “What are you talking about, Graham?” I chided him. "Wild Wild Country is not about voting rights and the constitution, it's about Osho!" “Who?” the woman on my right asked me quizzically, interested. “Osho, it’s about Osho, the spiritual leader, the guru!” I exclaimed excitedly. Everyone at the table (bar Graham) looked at me blankly. I wondered to myself how in the world and at this stage in my life could I be sitting at a table with a bunch of grown ass adults who had never heard of Osho.
“Osho.” I went on condescendingly. “Osho? Bhagwhan Shree Rajneesh? Rajneesh???” I questioned them, staring at their blank faces. “The guru??? From the 70s? From India? The one with the fleet of white Rolls Royces?" But alas, no one had heard of him. I was gobsmacked. I realized there in a moment of scintillating clarity that Graham and I had watched the exact same 6 hour plus documentary series but because of our perceptions and how our perception affects us, we had watched two completely different shows.
For me, Wild Wild Country was about Osho - a spiritual teacher, a guru, from India. A holy man, eventually turned into an unholy mess, with tens of thousands of disciples. I watched a show about the power of a guru over his disciples, for good - and in the case of Osho, for bad. I thought the show was about spiritual seeking, loneliness, Osho, and his Rasputin-like hold over the majority of his supporters. The filmmakers also do a deep dive into the orgies, drug abuse, and mind control that went down in the cult, out in the wilds of Antelope, Oregon. I was drawn to the drama of the show but I was mostly riveted by seeing the hypnotic control that this guru held over his followers.
I had watched a show about the cult of Osho, his devotees, and spiritual seeking gone awry.
Graham, on the other hand, had watched a show about immigration laws, the constitution of the United States, political resistance, and voter suppression.
I grew up surrounded by books about spiritual seeking. Since I was young I had been hearing about gurus and cults and metaphysics, so that colored my perception. Graham grew up in a family interested in law and the government and the constitution of the United States. So our experience of the series was completely altered by our past experiences. While watching the show I had, of course, been aware of the background political themes as Graham had been aware of Osho the man, but what held our attention, what captivated us for so many hours, what we eventually walked away with, were two completely different experiences.
If I were to take all the humans on Planet Earth and ask them to watch Wild Wild Country, every single one would have a different experience of that show based on their perception. It may be a similar impression but it will never, ever be exactly the same. This is what makes life so rich. People are all so different and that, in itself, is fascinating. When I look at the moonlight on the ocean I am filled with bliss, while my friend (full of fear) hears the soundtrack from “Jaws”. When I see one of those hairless cats I shudder in horror while one of my clients has two of those Dr. Evil-esque felines and those freakishly smooth, satanic looking, creatures are the joy of her existence. Everything is colored by life's past impressions. They're all in there for better or worse. Coloring, warping, and influencing every experience we have, have had, will have.
At the end of dinner Graham was still extolling the virtues of the show, telling us all it was an important exposition on the constitution and voting rights in America. I laughed and said, “and you get to see and hear clips of all these flailing, wailing, seventies-style orgies too, which is like a bonus track”.
I was thrilled by that moment of real clarity. And I was thrilled to be sober at that moment, suddenly aware of how drugs and alcohol had affected my perception previously. Looking back on my actively addicted years I see that my perception while using was like looking through a dirty windscreen. One covered with dust and muck and squashed insects. I could barely see through it. I couldn't see the light through all the grime that had built up on my perceptors over the years. When I was drinking and taking drugs, everything was colored by that need. That ceaseless gnawing craving. That unquenchable thirst and obsession for escape. Now, with recovery comes clarity. Clarity, which at times can be painful to come face to face with, but clarity nonetheless. This clarity of perception, this lucidity, is a gift that I never knew I wanted but one that I hope never to give away, so unconsciously, again.