Spear fishing and change

Imagine you’re on the shores of a lake trying to spear fish; you know that you are normally a good shot but for some reason your spears keep missing; you notice the way a bough that dips below the surface of the water looks like it’s bent and you realise that the same illusion would make the fish appear to be to in a different position to where they really are. So there you are, you have realised the world isn’t as you perceive it to be, what can you do about it?

Here are seven strategies you could use:

  1. Harmonise your perceptions and beliefs. You could practice spear fishing until you intuitively know where you need to throw she spear to hit the fish without conscious effort.
  2. Calculate the truth. You could use the principles of refraction to calculate where the fish actually is based on where it appears to be, as long as the fish stay still long enough for you to do the maths.
  3. Seek an accurate opinion. You could ask the experienced spear-fisher next to you for advice along the lines of “Aim 2 inches below that fish”.
  4. Estimate the truth. You could use the general idea that the fish will appear shallower than they really are and aim below them.
  5. Guess at the truth. You could accept that you can’t see were the fish are and throw your spears into the water blindly.
  6. Avoid the situation. You could decide that it’s simply not worth the effort to try to spear fish and go off and do something else.
  7. Suspend your disbelief. You could shrug your shoulders and keep on throwing the spears at where the fish appear to be, trusting your perception even though underneath you know that you will miss.

Sometimes we find that what we know to be true is as odds with the way the world appears and feels; learning new facts can be almost instantaneous, absorbing them into our world view can take a long time. This is particularly noticeable when we experience sudden life changing events, good or bad, and these seven strategies all come into play as we adjust.

At first glance harmonising our perceptions and beliefs appears to be the best strategy, it is the only one that leads towards us being able to simply trust the world’s appearance; but it can be difficult and painful, and it has the potential to shake us to the core. Our hopes, dreams and expectations are part of who we are, if they are undermined because the perceived reality on which they are built is cut away then part of ourselves is lost.

Calculating the truth completely fills the gap between the way the world seems and how we know it to be. It’s lets us interact appropriately with the world but it requires conscious effort, and it is impossible when we only know that our perception is inaccurate without knowing how far out of kilter it is. When we need to know the truth but can’t work it out, or we don’t want to face the struggle, then we can call on others to give us an accurate opinion. If we can live without the precise truth then we can trade accuracy for effort and estimate it, and if we are willing to abandon accuracy all together then we can guess.

Avoiding situations that would be too painful or upsetting lets us sidestep the conflict between our perception and our knowledge, but it’s a course of action that may be difficult, damaging or even simply impossible.

Finally, suspending our disbelief of our perception is actually a form of self-deception and so you might expect it to be a damaging strategy to use; but it can provide respite from the painful chore of adjusting to a new reality, and it can be a path to making enough peace with the lost reality to make letting it go achievable.

For a counsellor working with a client who is trying to cope with a sudden life changing event the task is one of helping him see the blend of strategies that he has been using and choose the ones to go on with, there is no right approach.

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