I have a group of friends from my college days who get together weekly on Zoom. I’m not there every week; some of us go in and out. But each week we pose questions to the group, and discuss them. It’s a great opportunity to discuss questions, sometimes silly, sometimes deep, sometimes difficult, with people we know and trust.
A few nights ago, one of the questions was this: Is it possible to be objective about yourself, your looks, personality, etc.? Are you purely the result of how each person you meet perceives you?
The conversation was interesting, and I was surprised how quickly it turned to the voices in our head that tell us things that are anything but objective. The general consensus for several minutes was that, no, you can’t be objective, because there are so many competing voices. It’s so hard to shut them up or shut them out. I was very surprised by the fact that I hadn’t said anything, yet there we were. It was as though this group of my friends were just writing my life-story themselves around me, without any help from me. I thought I was going to be the one to add in the stuff about voices in your head.
Then, I was surprised when the conversation started to shift, when one person discussed therapy and meditation, and how through that work, she was able at least sometimes to see herself objectively. Again, like they were writing my own story while I watched. I thought I was going to be the one who added something about how there’s work you can do, and hey, I did practice meditation for a few months once.
I kept silent through the whole conversation, remarking inside how alike we all were, how much my own story was not as unique as I’d thought, how I’m apparently not the resident mentally ill person. (Well, perhaps by degree, but not by kind.)
But one nagging thought kept coming to me. I decided not to share it for two reasons. First, I recognized that maybe I was just trying to find a way to be “different” in my answer to this question. Since I’d already lost my shot at being the one with the voices, and the one with the therapeutic tools, I have to find some other way of showing how great I am. So I had to be positive that this was worth sharing, and not just some psychological game I was playing.
And the second reason I chose not to share it was because it could just be a semantic quibble. I wasn’t sure if it was even worth bringing up, because it might just be a case of me defining a word differently, which was unimportant, because this was a good and helpful conversation to have. No reason to derail it this way.
And I’m glad I didn’t throw this in the mix. But I do think it may also be a good and helpful conversation in its own right. So I’m writing about it here. The nagging thought that came to me is this: There is no way to be “objective” in how you view yourself, because there is no such thing as objectivity.
I mean, let’s look at it. What we were trying to get at was a way to view ourselves positively, instead of negatively, right? But who says that the positive really is accurate? We may decide that the positive is accurate, because it makes our life easier. We may decide that we want to believe that we are worth loving, that we are worthy of happiness, that we are doing the best we can. But all of that is a decision we make. There’s not some outside force that we can rely on to give us the unvarnished truth.
Don’t get me wrong. I believe in God. But that’s the thing: I believe in God. I have absolutely no proof that God exists, that God cares for me, that my understanding of God is even remotely accurate. I choose to believe it. I can’t trust that there is an objective truth out there. Or at least, at the very least, I can’t trust that I have any access whatsoever to that truth. Maybe God has the answer. But God’s not telling me the answer, not in this life anyway. And even if God is telling me the answer, I can’t ever know whether it’s true or not. I have to believe that what I hear is true.
From my own experience, I hear voices all the time. Voices telling me that I’m worthless. Voices telling me that I’m loved. Voices telling me that I should destroy myself. Voices telling me that I am a genius. Voices telling me that nothing has meaning. Voices telling me just to numb myself. Voices telling me that I can make a difference if I try. And that’s just the voices inside my head.
I have created a structure for those voices, a way to understand them. I have put most of the chatter in my head into two categories: 1) the Dark Voice, a manifestation of my depression, who tells me miserable things about myself; and 2) the voice of God, who tells me (through the lens of my faith tradition) that I am loved, that I am baptized, that I am worthy. It makes sense to me. The mean things are from my sickness, the kind things are from my higher power. But I have no proof that this organizational structure is accurate. It could just be some idiotic thing I’ve invented.
We’re all on our own in terms of deciding what’s real and what’s not. There may be healthy and unhealthy ways of looking at ourselves. There may be productive and unproductive ways. There may be painful and hopeful ways. But none of them in the end is truly objective. They can’t be.
Because everything, absolutely everything we experience is filtered through our brains, through our minds, through our eyes and ears and nerves. Everything. We can’t escape it. And so we will never ever know if the world that we experience is as pink as we think it is, or if it’s just because we’re always wearing those rose lenses. Or as dark as we think it is, or if it’s just because we’re always wearing the dark lenses. And here’s the trick about perception: we cannot just take off those lenses. We can, to a certain extent, change our lenses. We may be able to find a new paradigm through which to think and act – but there will always be a paradigm. You can’t take off your lenses. There is no perception without them. They’re not like sunglasses – they’re more like our eyes ourselves. Sure, you can take out your eyes, I suppose. But that won’t help you see more clearly.
You make your own objectivity. You decide what voices to trust. You decide what voices to follow. And that’s really, really difficult sometimes.