“What we do see depends mainly on what we look for.
In the same field the farmer will notice the crop,
the geologists the fossils, botanists the flowers,
artists the coloring, sportsmen the cover for the game.
Though we may all look at the same things,
it does not all follow that we should see them.”

– John Lubbock

There’s a saying: “You can talk about politics and religion. Or you can have friends.”

How many gatherings end on a sour note, and how many conversations end with hurt feelings when conversations turn to these subjects? It’s frightening how quickly a discussion can go from civil to caustic, each side usually advocating a one-dimensional version of reality as the uncontroverted truth.

Perception has come to be synonymous with reality, but perception depends less on what we see than who we are. Says Robertson Davies: “The eye sees only what the mind is prepared to comprehend.” Basically, what we see when we look is a choice in that we see what we’re looking for.

Perception Bias

A few years ago, the theory of “Perception Bias” was tested by placing Joshua Bell, aPerception has come to be synonymous with reality world-class violinist, in the Washington, D.C., Metro. Playing some of the most sublime music ever composed on a violin worth several million dollars, he played in front of thousands of streaming commuters, who wouldn’t even look at him. Curious toddlers (not yet permeated with perception bias) who wanted to stop and listen were yanked along by impatient parents not interested in a subway musician. I wonder if any of those who walked on by were among the concert-goers who paid $100 or more to hear Mr. Bell perform that very evening.

Our brains process billions of bits of information per second, yet we can only process a few dozen of them. Our brains choose which infinitesimal sliver—out of all the possible reality to look at—and then our bias tells us how to interpret that sliver. It’s all a choice. Thus, our perceptions are biased. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

This week’s Torah portion, Re’eh, which means “see,” tells us to look at the choices before us, to see life and death, blessings and curses—and to choose life. “See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil ... blessing and curse. Therefore, choose life, that you and your offspring may live.” That’s pretty easy, isn’t it? I think anyone can get that one right. But just to make sure, we are told which choice to make, in case we lack in the clarity department. If we need to be directed to make the “obvious” choice, is it possible that the choice is not obvious? Maybe we don’t see things as clearly as we think we do. Or do we intentionally obfuscate? We must not be so sure what we are seeing or else why be told which is the better choice?

Making Perception Bias Work for You

First, we must decide what it is we want to see because we always and inevitably find what we are looking for. The Talmud teaches this concept that one who says he has looked but hasn’t found, don’t believe him. If he says he has found and hasn’t looked, don’t believe him. Only the one who says he has both looked and has found can be believed (Megillah 6b). And yet no one is without perception bias. The question is how can we make that work for us, instead of against us? The answer is that it’s a choice we make.

Do you want to find something to criticize in a person? You will. Do you want to find the Do you want to find the negative in a situation? You will. negative in a situation? You will. Thoreau said that a fault-finder will find fault, even in paradise. You want to see the good in a person or a situation? You will. Do you wish you could see your life as filled with blessings and not curses? You can.

Moses told us that when we choose to see Torah as life-giving and then make choices so as to live in alignment with that reality, we are choosing life. But it’s not easy and certainly not obvious, given the state of illusion of this world. Often, we are enamored of things and actions that are anti-Torah, and we make choices, in effect, where we are confused between blessings and curses, life and death.

The Torah is called the “Tree of Life,” and a tree has many branches and many leaves. Look at it. Look at it with the deliberate intention of seeing something good, of seeing something in a new light, anything really, that will help you be a better, kinder person, that will help you get a little bit closer to G‑d and a little more loving of your fellow man. Just one leaf. And then choose it and act consistently with your choice. Learn the meaning of life, and then choosing the blessings life has to offer becomes a no-brainer.

Internalize & Actualize:

  1. Write down five things you don’t like about yourself. Be honest and blunt. Now, right next to those rewrite those very five things into something positive. This is not about finding five different things you do like, but about liking the five things you don’t like (i.e., “I am fat and hate my body” versus “My body has carried and birthed my children and given them life.”)
  2. Being that we see what we are looking for, what are some things you want to be seeing in your life? Are you looking in the right places for them? Are you looking with the right eyes to find them? Why or why not? What can you do differently?
  3. Do others see you the way you want to be seen? What can you do differently so that when people look at you they see your beauty and the amazing person you truly are?