We See What We Want to See

I once sent out a newsletter sharing several stories about oppression, minorities, and individuals overcoming extremely unfavorable odds. A man named Bob replied and said: “What a depressing email! Nothing but past wrongs with nothing highlighting hope for the future of mankind.”

One of the stories was Trevor Noah’s biography, Born a Crime, an aptly titled book since, as the son of an interracial couple under the South African apartheid regime, Noah was an “illegal” child and went through a lot of trouble to not be snatched away by the authorities. Today, Noah hosts The Daily Show, a staple of American night-time TV, and is beloved by millions. If that’s not hopeful, I don’t know what is.

In a similar vein, the other stories pointed out how old problems like slavery and racism still cast long shadows today, and what we can and must do to eliminate those shadows once and for all.

Now I don’t know if Bob actually read those stories or only glanced at the email, but it appears that when we looked at those stories, Bob and I saw very different things.

I’m always excited and hopeful when I send out a newsletter — after all, I believe and hope it will do something good — and so I guess no matter what’s in the email, I assume it to be a positive thing. Maybe Bob had a bad day. Maybe he’s been sad for a while. Maybe he felt offended by some of the ideas in those stories because he happened to be on the lucky side of history. Regardless of the reason, however, like me, Bob only saw what he wanted to see. Something to feed his misery rather than overcome it.

It is important to note here that Bob and I — and you — are equally biased. The questions are whether we’re aware of it, what filter we use, and whether we’re courageous enough to swap those filters when another would do better.

When I send a newsletter to thousands of people, I don’t want to put on my misery-glasses. That’s not part of the values and ideas I want to spread. If Bob hoped for me to change my choice of stories, the misery-filter was probably not a bad one to pick! It is the opposite of the one I want to use, and by saying, “look, this is all some downer stuff,” he surely got me thinking. Maybe that week’s mix was too one-sided. But if Bob didn’t have a specific goal with his email, if it was just “a shot from the hip,” as we say in Germany, then that filter didn’t exactly serve a purpose.

When you see only drama and pain, ask yourself why. When you think everything is perfect right before it falls apart, ask yourself why. We see what we want to see, but we can learn to filter reality better by deliberately choosing what we want.