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  • Writer's pictureRyan Allen

The inherently subjective nature of our reality

At the time of writing this, I just returned from a refreshing, rewarding experience volunteering for a student retreat with my former high school. While there were several invaluable takeaways from this mental reset of sorts, perhaps the most important came from a talk given by an adult leader from the school. He told a touching story of his involvement with the unhoused population, and his interactions with one woman for whom he bought a coffee and newspaper each morning. One day, the woman stopped him before he entered the coffee shop. She explained that she actually didn’t want either of those things this morning. Instead, she just wanted a hug. After she tightly embraced him for the next thirty seconds, she told him she had not had a hug in ten years.

In his talk, he went on to extrapolate that there was a “love deficit” in the world today, that there is a serious widespread lack of empathy and overall kindness in our society. I think a lot of us would agree, but why? What is behind this phenomenon which, at least on the surface, appears to be pervasive, blunt cold-heartedness?

The explanation is likely far more complicated than any one concept, but at its core, I think a lot could be solved by a simple recognition: we truly are each living in our own world. What may seem like an uninspiring, overstated idea is actually overlooked constantly. As David Foster Wallace so eloquently refers to this in his commencement speech “This Is Water,” it is our “default setting” to go through life assuming that everything revolves around ourselves, because that is the way we experience the world. In life, it is no exaggeration to say that each of us operates as though we are the center of the universe.

Just the occasional, brief act of taking a moment to stop and acknowledge this can go such a long way. When we do this, we can realize that we individually create all our own emotions, our own stress, etc., and in that way there’s never anything in objective reality that is inherently bad, sad, rude, or negative. Rather, it is simply our perceptions and interpretations of the world around us that trigger these self-imposed emotions. There is great power that can come from recognizing this, as it helps us to avoid identification with these emotions and self-imposed misery.

If we remain absorbed in our default setting, our perceived misery can easily transmit to others. However, if we can take the step to be mindful of subjectivity from time to time, we can not only lessen the impact of negative sensations on ourselves, but we can better empathize with others. Since we all experience our own individual realities, we never truly know the circumstances within which another arrives at a situation.

For example, if I am having a conversation with a customer service agent, I might jump to the conclusion that they are a rude or impatient person. However, there is so much that could be going on in this person’s reality that is not apparent in mine. What if they’re struggling with a troubling medical diagnosis? What if they’re coping with the death of a loved one at home? What if the love of their life just abandoned them? Looking at how I find myself entering the interaction, I’m probably frustrated with the service issue I’m calling about, and my anger is not helping the situation either. When we truly consider each situation, there is seemingly always a circumstantial explanation behind why someone becomes the way they are, or acts the way they do. While we may not agree with or condone one’s behavior in each moment, we should always try to find it within us to avoid jumping to harmful conclusions about others’ character, and empathize as effectively as we can. It is not worth it to ourselves or those around us to perpetuate negativity that does not exist or does not matter.

It can be surprisingly difficult to channel the realization of our subjective reality at any given time. This is where I find a routine practice of mindfulness meditation to be incredibly useful. Particularly in Sam Harris’s Waking Up app, one can build towards incorporating the practice of mindfulness with the rest of life. I think Sam and other teachers who offer guided meditations in the app do an excellent job at pointing out this subjective nature of consciousness, and how it can help us be better to ourselves and others. Though it is by no means a silver bullet and must be conducted appropriately, I think if everyone engaged in some form of mindfulness and made efforts to translate it into everyday life, we could go a long way towards resolving this “love deficit.”


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