A landfill is a dumping ground for random objects and things. I figure that this blog is going to serve as a dumping ground for my random thoughts - therefore, it's a mindfill.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Monet and Psychology: The Sky is Green

It's been a long week and now it's the weekend, so I've resorted to recycling another one of my old essays. Think of it as a "Greatest Hits"...or something like that.

One thing I have learned is that no matter how screwed up your life is, there is always someone out there whose life is infinitely more like an episode of Jerry Springer than yours. There’s always a friend out there who has real problems that dwarf your own. This just demonstrates why the old saying – “The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.” – is not usually the reality of the situation. It’s all a matter of perception. Our lives are, as we perceive them to be. For that reason, the “grass is greener” maxim is somewhat true. If we perceive the grass to be greener, then we will believe that it is. But in reality, it’s like a painting by Monet. When you stand at a distance, your brain tricks you into thinking that what you see is a beautiful, cohesive, image. This is “the other side of the fence.” But when you look at the image from close up, what you see is a collection of strange colorful glops of paint that more closely resemble Rorschach’s inkblots than they do any thing you’ve ever seen before. Our perceptions dictate how we see our lives versus others.

We see our own lives from so close a proximity that it is like looking through a microscope. Thus, we are left with the Monet looked upon from an uncomfortably close distance and the unrecognizable blobs of paint. Our lives look very unartistic from this range. At the same time, we are viewing others’ lives from afar. As a result, we soak in the complete, and to our brains, more beautiful image.

There is a similar concept to this in Social Psychology (I know, here I go again spewing from my psychology textbooks) called the out-group homogeneity effect. As is often the case with psychological concepts, this is a very long name to describe a rather simple concept. Psychologists, along with lawyers and philosophers, are most often paid by the word in case you’re wondering why there is a virtual cornucopia of long-winded titles for simple concepts. Since I was a psychology major and I graduated from law school, you the reader are now subjected to me also using long titles to describe simple concepts. Sorry. I’ll return to the simple concept now. The Out-Group Homogeneity effect basically means that we perceive those not in our specific group – race, gender, socio-economic background, university affiliation, whatever – as being far more similar to others not in our group than those within our group are to us. In other words, “They (fill in the blank with whatever group you’re referring to) are all the same.” We view those not within our immediate group as being vastly different than we perceive those we see on a daily basis. This is the Monet principle again. Those that aren’t in our group are perceived from a distance and the formless, shapeless, blobs of their lives, seem to run together into a beautiful, well-defined form. Those that are in our group – and most specifically ourselves – are viewed from up close and we see the ugly blobs of our lives rather than the total picture that we see of others. The end result is that we usually perceive our own problems, however minute, as far more serious than they truly are.

Granted, no one is ever going to adhere to this concept entirely, to do so would almost certainly require us to cease to view our own problems as problems, which even minor usually tend to be actual problems. Instead, we must learn to place things in their proper perspective. We must learn to view our lives as those around us do. We must be able to step back from time to time and view things from afar. There are times when our problems are the biggest problems of the day and there are times when our problems just don’t matter. We need to learn when these times are. In the immortal words of Kenny Rogers (wow, I never thought I’d ever say that!), “you gotta know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away, know when to run.”

In doing so, we learn how to view our lives in the big picture and we see them as we would see a Monet. So rather than the random spots and brushstrokes of color, we see the whole beautiful picture. Then, we deal with our problems when the time is right.

Dealing with your problems leads to another psychological issue of perspective. A lot of times, our problems are problems because we perceive them as such. Therefore, we see something in our life that bothers us, and we tend to view it as a problem thus making it so. It is sometimes the case that the only reason that this is a problem is because we view it as such. In order to deal with this, sometimes we have to manipulate our perception to rid it of the problem.

Everyone has heard the old maxim that we can’t control what others think of us. We all know this to be true. Well, that is unless you work in the public relations industry or are part of the White House Press Corps. Then you are sure that you can control what others think, or at least what they should think about someone. But for the rest of us mere mortals, we have no chance at controlling the thought patterns of others in relation to their opinions of ourselves. The best we can do is to act in a way that we want others to see and allow them to believe what they will. The truth is usually somewhere in between our thoughts and theirs. Even if you act consistently with the Golden Rule in every occasion, there will be those who choose to think ill of you. So why bother trying to alter others’ opinions of yourself.

Instead, alter your own perception on things. If you do something because someone tells you to do it and you are worried that you are solely acting in that way because they control you, then convince yourself that you are doing it because you want to do it. Now, instead of them thinking they have control over you and you thinking they have control over you. They think they have control over you and you think you had fun. You can’t change what they think, so change what you think. Now obviously this has its limitations. If you go around convincing yourself that the sky is green, you won’t be well adjusted - you’ll be nuts. And others will think you’re nuts anyway, so you’re screwed either way.

So our lives are all viewed through our own perceptions. How we choose to perceive the world around us determines how we perceive our own circumstances. There are those of us who choose to view our lives as a Monet – from a distance to enjoy the overall image and the breathtaking beauty or up close where all we see is the various blotches of color with no beautiful image and nothing but chaos. This describes the vast majority of the population. Which group you fit into is up to you. But I would recommend to you this, most art museums place ropes in front of the Monets to keep the viewing public at a distance. Take a hint from them. Then again, there are others who choose to view their lives as an Escher, there are staircases leading to nowhere in particular and nothing makes sense. For those people, it might be a little more than a matter of perception, it may be a matter of medication or lack thereof. But that’s another topic for another time.


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