While “selective perception” can be a problem, it’s often very much of a necessity, because every day we’re all confronted with so much stimuli that we actually have to filter out what doesn’t suit our needs in order to carry out our lives sanely.
I recently read an astute expression of gratitude for selective perception and its concomitant “tunnel vision” that was ascribed to Stephen King, famous author of horror, supernatural fiction, suspense, and fantasy novels. Before sharing King’s quote, and in order to fully appreciate his insight, it would help to know a bit about a writer that King alludes to in his remark, who is the namesake of a subgenre of fiction called “Lovecraftian horror.”
Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1890-1937) was an American writer of weird and horror stories in the early part of the twentieth century. He spent most of his life in Providence, Rhode Island, and his stories were mainly set against a New England backdrop. Rather than simply focus on gore or other shocking elements, in his stories, Lovecraft featured the unexplainable dread of the unknown, he highlighted the fragility of sanity, and he challenged basic presumptions of reality. And so, to now share Stephen King’s comment: “Thank God for tunnel vision. Thank God for selective perception. Because without it, we might as well all be in a Lovecraft story.”
Pondering how and why it is that people often see things so differently, got me to recall an anecdote I heard many years ago about two different families moving to the same town on the very same day. There are probably variations of this story, but as I heard it, the first family arrives by car and pulls over to talk to an old timer on the outskirts of town. When the father asks the old timer what the people are like that live in the town, the old guy asks them what the people were like where they came from. All the family answer in agreement that their previous neighbors were friendly, law-abiding, and tended to mind their own business. The old timer says, “That’s the kind of folks that live here too.” This family proceeds into town and soon thereafter the second family arrives by car and also stops to talk to this same old timer. When the father asks the old guy what the people in town are like, he asks them what the people were like in the town they just left. In one accord the family answers that their former neighbors were unfriendly, scoff-laws, and real busybodies. The old timer tells them, “That’s the kind of folks that live here too.”
Perhaps an upbeat moral to the foregoing can be found in a new twist that’s been put to an old chestnut: A pessimist looks at a water glass and says “It’s half-empty.” An optimist comes across this same water glass and says “It’s half-full.” Finally, a realist also comes across this very same water glass, puts ice in it, tops it off with scotch, and says, “Cheers!”