“The struggle for definition is veritably the struggle for life itself…In ordinary life, the struggle is [for symbols]…whoever first defines the situation is the victor.”
— Thomas Szasz
One of the chief factors governing the quality of our lives, perceptions, relationships, and also the power struggles between individuals and groups, are reality definitions.
A reality definition is a cognitive template that the mind of an individual or group superimposes on reality to give it both a comprehensible definition and to control it.
Relationship partners, politicians, political parties, corporations and nation states are among those who are often in a struggle to impose their definition of reality to control situations.
For example, in the 2012 U.S. presidential election, you saw a classic competition of reality definitions (conflicting versions of reality) fought out with campaign speeches, public events and a couple of billion dollars of advertising money. The Democrats defined the Republicans as a party that favors the rich and corporate interests and doesn’t care about women, minority groups or even the middle class. The Republicans defined the Democrats as tax-and-spend liberals who aren’t financially competent and want to provide ruinous entitlements to special interest groups. Romney tried to define Obama as a failed president who is out of touch with the people. The Obama campaign more successfully defined Romney as a ruthless venture capitalist who is out of touch with the needs of the middle class. Putting aside the factual veracity of each of these definitions, we can see that, like all political campaigns, this was a competition of reality definitions. On the same election day, there was a competition of reality definitions occurring between consumer activists (who were campaigning for proposition 37 which would have required labeling of GMO products in California) and a consortium of corporations, led by Monsanto, who opposed this. The corporations out-spent the activists dramatically and ran a barrage of ads that defined the proposition as something that would kill jobs and dramatically raise prices, etc. Many of their reality definitions were based on outright lies, but it is perfectly legal to lie in political ads and campaigns. The corporate definition of reality prevailed with a majority of voters, and the proposition was defeated.
The competition of reality definitions is also a continual struggle in many relationships. For example, a man and a woman in a romantic relationship are arguing about a series of things. The woman is bringing up various insensitive and inconsiderate things that the man has done, and the man is defensive and arguing that she is overreacting and being unfair. The woman’s reality definition is that she is forever the long-suffering victim of the gross misbehavior of men. The man’s reality definition is that no matter what he does, women always find fault with him, exaggerate transgressions, overlook the good things, and try to make him out as the bad guy. Each of them can find valid evidence to support their opposing reality definitions. Each of them wants their reality definition to prevail, and wants the other to acknowledge it as exclusively valid. These two reality definitions cannot coexist very easily. It would create cognitive dissonance for either of them to give equal weight to the reality definition of the other, and therefore it is likely that variations of the same argument will continue throughout the relationship.
When there is an intense competition of incompatible reality definitions, as there is between the Republicans and Democrats of 2012, or the romantic couple described above, the result is toxic stagnation. It is hard for two entities to work synergistically when they are caught in a power struggle of competing, incompatible reality definitions.
Reality definitions that we create can also be empowering or disempowering even when they are not in competition with the reality definitions of others. For example, let’s say I have a general negative reality definition such as: “Nobody likes me and I never get my fair share. Life sucks and then you die.” This is actually a very common reality definition. A person with this reality definition will project this withering template onto every person, situation and opportunity that comes their way. It is likely to operate as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Another person’s general reality definition is: “Life is full of possibilities. I am a creative problem solver and people like me. Life provides continual challenges/learning experiences and I’m up for the adventure.” This person’s general life definition is empowering and is also likely to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
When two people encounter each other, it is also an encounter of their reality definitions that may or may not be compatible. When a person encounters a new situation there may also be dissonance with their reality definition. Sometimes situations or other people are compliant enough that a person can impose their reality definition onto the situation/person. For example, people around Steve Jobs frequently referred to his “reality distortion field.” Jobs had enough will, creativity and charisma that he could often successfully redefine reality to go the way he wanted. But Jobs also frequently hurt himself and others by his reality distortion field, and reality often pushed back on his desire to redefine it. His reality distortion field was not able, for example, to dematerialize his cancer, and he may have shortened his life by refusing to incorporate cancer into his self-definition that caused him to delay necessary surgery, etc.
One answer to the reality definition problem is to impose fewer definitions onto reality. Meditation is a practice that seeks an experience of reality without imposed definition. Meditation seeks to reduce the activity of the “narrative mind,” the mind that is imposing definitions on everything. “Beginner’s mind” is a state of cognitive innocence and openness where, instead of imposing preexisting definitions onto reality, we approach it with child-like wonder and see what it has to teach us.
Another approach to the problem of reality definitions is to bring them into awareness where we can adjust and modify them to work more creatively and positively with various relationships and other situations. We begin by realizing that “The map is not the territory.” A reality definition is a map we superimpose onto a territory that is usually much more complex than the map. When we look at our reality definitions it is helpful if we remind ourselves of what J.B.S. Haldane said, “Reality is not only stranger than you think, it’s stranger than you can think.” We recognize, therefore, that our reality definitions are incomplete and provisional but are sometimes helpful, working constructs. We check to see if our reality definitions are incompatible or poorly adapted to particular situations. If we are in a conscious relationship with someone, then we both look at and compare our reality definitions and work to modify them so that they can play well together.
Consider this a propitious time to bring reality definitions into consciousness and to remove or modify them to allow for greater life-affirming possibilities.
“In the typical Western two men fight desperately for the possession of a gun that has been thrown to the ground: whoever reaches the weapon first shoots and lives; his adversary is shot and dies. In ordinary life, the struggle is not for guns but for words; whoever first defines the situation is the victor; his adversary, the victim. For example, in the family, husband and wife, mother and child do not get along; who defines whom as troublesome or mentally sick?…[the one] who first seizes the word imposes reality on the other; [the one] who defines thus dominates and lives; and [the one] who is defined is subjugated and may be killed.” — Thomas Szasz (1920-2012) wrote this in 1974 If you have time to watch an 8 minute antique Thurber cartoon, it illustrates the competition of reality definitions very nicely: The Unicorn in the Garden