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19. Hidden perceptions that damage relationships January 30, 2010

Posted by Lisa in All, Learning points, Networking, People skills.
Tags: , , ,

I worked with two people over the last 15 years who I’d prefer never to see again.  Both did something I considered a significant breech of personal and professional etiquette.  I admit, both events still boil me a bit.

Each of us package ourselves into little boxes based on our perceptions.  Boxes we often don’t even realize confine us because we’ve worn them for so long.   These perceptions become  boundaries and sign posts of our own making;  invisible markers that we use to guide us, never realizing that others follow their own sign posts that are just as invisible.

But something happened the other day that’s probably changed my life.

Damaged Relationships

I have a family member I’ve never been close to, and my mother has tried to get us to open up to each other for a couple years.  Both of us have felt a bit of a wall most of our lives.  Not sure why, as there was no precipitating event, but it’s as if we’re simply acquaintances who visit once or twice a year.  With a nagging feeling I think, that there could be more.  But we didn’t know if the other felt the same.

The other day my mom and I went to the book store, and I chanced upon a book by Thich Nhat Hanh and opened it to a random page and started reading.

This is the story I read.

“A man once had to leave home for a long time. Before he left, his wife got pregnant, but he didn’t know it. When he returned, his wife had given birth to a child. He suspected that the little boy was not his, and believed that he was the son of a neighbor who used to come and work for the family. He looked at the little boy with suspicion. He hated him. He saw the neighbor’s face in the little boy’s face. Then one day the man’s brother came to visit for the first time. When he saw the little boy, he said to the father, “He looks just like you. He’s your exact duplicate.” The brother’s visit was a happy event, because it helped the father to get rid of his wrong perception. But the wrong perception had controlled this man’s life for 12 years. It made the father suffer deeply. It made his wife suffer deeply, and, of course, the little boy suffered from that kind of hatred.

“We act on the basis of wrong perceptions all the time. We should not be sure of any perception we have. When you look at the beautiful sunset, you may be quite sure that you are seeing the sun as it is in that moment, but a scientist will tell you that the image of the sun that you see is the image of the sun from eight minutes ago. Sunlight takes eight minutes to reach the earth from such a long distance. Also, when you see a star, you think that the star is there, but the star may have disappeared already, one, two, or ten thousand years before.

“We have to be very careful with our perceptions, otherwise we will suffer. It is very helpful to write on a piece of paper, “Are you sure?” and hang it up in your room. In medical clinics and hospitals, they are beginning to hang up these kinds of signs: “Even if you are sure, check again.” It is a caution that if a disease is not detected early, then it will be very difficult to heal. The medical doctors are not thinking in terms of mental formations. They are thinking in terms of a hidden disease. But we can also make use of this slogan – “Even if you are sure, check again.” We have made ourselves suffer, we made a hell for ourselves and our beloved ones because of our perceptions. Are you sure of your perception?

“There are people who suffer from a wrong perception for ten or twenty years. They are sure the other person has betrayed them or hates them, even though the other person has only good intentions. A person who is the victim of a wrong perception makes himself and the people around him suffer a lot.

“When you are angry and you suffer, please go back and inspect very deeply the content, the nature of your perceptions. If you are capable of removing the wrong perception, peace an happiness will be restored in you, and you will be able to love the other person again.”

Leaning against a book shelf, I read this story aloud to my mother, trying not to cry.   Without a word, she knew to whom and what it referred.

Getting the nerve and taking a chance

The reading seemed like fate.  She bought me the book.  The next morning I gathered my nerve and transcribed the story, sending it to him with a note that we really didn’t know each other well.  He replied back in agreement. I was relieved he felt the same, but I didn’t want a meeting between us to have the weight of expectation so I joked in return:

“And just to clarify, I am not pregnant with any of your staff, light takes closer to 8.3 minutes to reach the earth, and I don’t hate you.”

He replied in kind, ice broken, and we spent hours at dinner the next night talking about our perceptions and why our relationship had drifted apart over the years.  Turns out each of our perceptions was a little off, and some down-right wrong.


We may end up being very close friends.  It’s surely possible now, since decades of (mis)perceptions have been brought to light.  Some set aside, some rotated 90°, and some new (and shared) ones created.

Should we always seek to fix the damage?

So, would this affect my relationship with my two co-workers from the past?  One had behaved abominably but shortly after offered a sincere apology which I’d refused.  Maybe now I should consider that his and my interactions hadn’t existed in a vacuum, but were influenced by outside events.  And I hope I would offer a handshake if I saw him again.

The other?  Well, I’m not perfect and some events haven’t lost their cruel bite.  I don’t know if I could initiate that handshake.  But who knows.

However, I hope to take this lesson forward, and recognize possible errors in perception within shorter time intervals than years or decades.

Compass Point – Are you sure of your perception? “We act on the basis of wrong perceptions all the time. We should not be sure of any perception we have …  If you are capable of removing the wrong perception, peace an happiness will be restored in you.” – Thich Nhat Hanh

19 down, 341 to go.



1. Cooper Riley - February 5, 2010

Very profoud – and perceptive.

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