Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth. – Marcus Aurelius
What does that mean?
The quote urges us to consider that what others say is their opinion, not fact. It may be a respected and well informed opinion, but still it is an opinion.
Similarly, the quote urges us to remember that our eyes do deceive us, and that not all we see is what truly is. Our minds often fill in details that may not actually be there.
Everything we see and hear are filtered by our thoughts and ideas. We are not the best at being accurate. But if we understand our weakness and our failings, we can allow for these errors.
By understanding what is going on, we can be more accurate and more precise in our descriptions of what we heard and saw, and not pretend to be infallible.
Why is everything we hear and see important?
How much do we hear or see in an average day? Can you even remember the faces of everyone you have seen today? How about what they were wearing? Can you recall any conversation you heard with the accuracy of a court stenographer? Or are your recollections of what you heard more your opinion than actual fact? What about the things you saw? Is that any different?
We are imperfect beings. Our memories about what we heard and saw are not perfect either. We need to remember this and know that what we heard (or what others hear us say) is an opinion. What we have seen is our perspective based on what we believe possible and what we believe to be true, not actual truth.
There was a very interesting Japanese film about the topic, called Rashomon. In the movie, four different people give testimony about an event, and each is different. Each is saying what they heard or saw, but both their perceptions and motivations are suspect.
Even when our intentions are honorable, we can end up changing what we think we heard and what we think we saw to better match what we believe to be true. And that can be noticeably different from what is fact and what is the truth. If we know this in advance, we can mention to others that we aren’t sure, but what we think we heard and saw was as follows (and then specify the details).
Where can I apply this in my life?
When someone speaks about something, is that fact, or their opinion of what they experienced? My experience is that it is the latter, not the former. Similarly, when we see something, is it the truth, or just what we could see ourselves? How much do we imagine to fill in the gaps in what we could see?
How often do we do this? How often do we allow our imperfect memory to fool us, and to make fools of us, as we swear we heard or saw something that simply did not happen? Or how often do we get into arguments with others about what really happened, because we think we heard or saw one thing and they believe with the same certainty that they heard or saw something else?
Have any of those fights been worth the effort needed to win, or the damage to the relationship that ensued? In my experience, it is not, but yours may be different. Some people have to be right no matter if they are or not. If you are one of them, can you ask yourself why? Why do you value being right more than facts, more than the truth?
Most of the rest of us can still relax a little more about being right, and allow for the possibility that we are mistaken in our opinion or our perspective. Things are not always as they seem. We don’t always hear or see everything that happened, so there is always room for some doubt.
In this context, doubt is good. Not doubt in our abilities, but doubt in our certainty of what we heard or saw. If we allow for the possibility of error or incomplete information, we can better understand what might actually have happened. What did we miss, or misinterpret? Is it even a possibility you are willing to entertain?
When I was a young boy, I misread a word in a book, and had a ferocious argument with my dad about the word and what it meant. I would not back down, and eventually my dad let me leave with my misunderstanding in tact. Eventually I realized how wrong I was, and apologized. I learned a lot from that mistake.
Earlier I asked you how often you had such discussions or arguments. The next question is how often have you had to ask for forgiveness of those with whom you battled? How much fun was that? Or did you allow such an event to break a friendship, because you were unwilling to ask for forgiveness or admit you were wrong?
The point is that damage to relationships can happen if we are not careful about what we say we know happened as a fact, or as the truth. We can also damage our reputation and eventually our character if we continue to be belligerent about such things. Is that how we want to be known, how we want to be remembered? I certainly do not.