The summer before 9th grade, I was blessed to be able to attend a program in the Tulsa area called Summer Arts. This program ran for a few weeks, during which you had a primary focus (mine was writing) and 2 different side foci, which I had a hard time choosing because all I cared about was writing, but I ended up with a mime class (a matter of shame to me that WE WILL NEVER TALK ABOUT AGAIN) and photography. The photography class was actually amazing and I loved it, because we made our own pinhole cameras, which we filled with sheets of film and took to a special photography shop to get processed.
One of the thing that I found interesting about this photography class was that our instructor spent some time with each of our cameras and looked at the pictures we took to determine the colors that were coming through. With most, possibly all, of our cameras, he ended up adding little colored cellophane filters–red, yellow, blue, or a combo–over the lens. He said it was to make the colors more true to life. This made no sense to me. The cameras had nothing but pure light from the object being photographed, coming in a hole to hit the film. Surely there couldn’t be anything more true to life than that! And the fact that each camera had to be tested and adjusted individually was even more mind-boggling. We had all made the cameras together, out of the same materials, using the same pattern and instructions and assistance. We all used the same type of film, from the same batch. If there could somehow be a problem with the color in our cameras, why wasn’t it all the same?
I don’t even remember what our instructor’s explanation for that was. All I know is that it is an important concept to understand that, even when you think you have accounted for every possible variation to theoretically produce uniform results, there are often immeasurable, sometimes undetectable, factors that will arise, which you have to adjust for after the fact. Which is how I’m introducing today’s topic.
One thing I’ve noticed is that most people have mental presets through which they view the world. Filters. Those filters adjust the pure input from reality into something that works better with our internal mechanisms. They are usually learned, though sometimes biologically based.
So, here’s a problem with that. Sometimes the filters are good: like an empathy filter, gained by having understanding for others, that filters someone’s crankiness through the filter of knowing they are tired, or in pain, or haven’t eaten for a while, and it grants more understanding, leniency, and sympathy for the person’s behavior. But lots of times our filters are NOT good. Like, thinking that a certain facial expression is judging you and angry because it’s the same face your dysfunctional father would make when he was about to beat you for not making dinner for him in the perfect way he wanted that day. Or thinking that someone’s motivations are hateful and ignorant, because you read a lot of theorizing that behavior like theirs must have been rooted in hate and ignorance. Or filtering someone’s choices through the judgmental filter of “how I would have done it if I had been there,” which is also usually a filter of ignorance because you weren’t there and you really have no idea how you may have acted. Negative filters rarely take into account all but the extremely narrow set of immediate, surface data we have about a situation, and then draw conclusions based more on our past experiences and conclusions, or idyllic armchair quarterback scenarios we have concocted in our limited minds, which may have NOTHING to do with the current situation. (Sometimes these filters get so bad that they are delusional: actually warping reality to better support your idea of what it meant. That’s at the level that you need a little more help than internet advice.)
Here’s where the advice comes in. Despite the natural belief that we are seeing things ‘the way they really are,’ I can pretty much guarantee that none of us actually are seeing the full, real truth. It’s not generally something to fret about, because lots of times the filters are mild and don’t cause issues. But if you find yourself reacting to something with strong emotion–ANY strong emotion–we need to check our filters. Want to lash out in anger against another driver? Check your filter! You may be harshly judging them because you are angry about something else or running behind, they may have a perfectly logical and acceptable reason for what they are doing, or you may have not seen the entire situation. Sad or upset because a friend didn’t call you for your birthday? Check your filter! They may have had something harsh in their life today, and while birthdays are often important to acknowledge, missing one doesn’t really hurt you. Tempted to jump in and take over because you see a kid doing work in the yard that you think is ‘too much?’ Check your filter! You may be harboring resentment for chores you had to do as a child, but that kid (and you) are more likely to benefit from such household duties. Wanting to write an angry note to someone because someone you loved just spent twenty minutes regaling you with tales of their mistreatment? Check your filter! Your loved one not only has their own filters (and possible misperceptions) regarding what happened, but it’s very common for people to automatically present emotional tales in exaggerated even and skewed forms to garner support.
Everyone sees things differently in the world. That’s usually a good thing. But when it comes to making judgments and choices based on those perceptions, we really need to be aware of what filters we are using.