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Filtering Reality

I sat on the cellar floor under a cascade of water. It originated from the kind of commercially dug private well that most residents had in the small rural town of Pownal, Maine. The water was pumped into the house through a main water line that entered through the cellar wall and ran up along the ceiling.

Our water had problems. It contained silt and lots of iron. The iron created tiny rust-colored particles that could paint the sinks, tub, shower, and toilet with an unsightly reddish-brown ring. To avoid this interior decorating horror, the contractor had installed an in-line water filtration device down in the basement. The device had a removable plastic container that was attached by screwing it on by hand. Inside the container was a pure white disposable filter that usually turned dark brown in about a month.

I was told to screw on the container “hand tight.” I didn’t want any water leaking out, so my obsessive mentality figured that if “tight” is good, “very tight” is a whole lot better. One morning I was standing on a chair trying to unscrew the thing and replace the filter, but it wouldn’t budge. I untwisted harder and harder using a special tool, then all of a sudden, the connection to the water pipe broke.

I fell onto the floor in a heap, cringing under a torrent of ice-cold water. My mind was reeling. A vision flashed through my mind of our cellar furniture floating around like children’s toys in a half-filled bathtub. Then my mind shouted, “Valve—find the valve.” I had seen a shut-off somewhere before. Half-blinded, I groped around near the wall. My trembling fingers felt along the pipe, discovered the blessed valve, and the flood was averted.

I didn’t like the water filter, but it was nonetheless a fixture in my life. So is another type of filter that each of us has inside our heads. It filters everything that comes our way during the day. It shapes and colors everything we see and hear.

We like to think that we perceive reality as it actually is when, in fact, we only perceive our version of reality. Because of the filters, we only know our interpretation of what is going on around us. No one can be completely objective. Even if we agree on certain facts, we each attach our own meaning and significance to those facts.[1]

These filters are made up of the accumulation of all the previous facts we’ve assimilated, the things we’ve been told, the experiences we’ve had, the values we’ve developed, the beliefs we’ve acquired, and the emotions we have felt.[2]

The filters are like a big stew with all of these ingredients mixed together in our brains. We cannot tell what influence a particular ingredient might have at any given time. Some things barely influence us at all. On the other hand, the smallest incident from the past can have an impact all out of proportion to its size. Each person’s filters are as different as the lives they’ve lived. They can be planted quite early.

      – The time your first-grade teacher said you were a talented artist.

      – The crucial fly ball you dropped in Little League.

      – The fear you picked up from mom when dad came home very late.

      – The memorable vacation your family took to Colorado when you were eight.

      – The harsh political arguments you heard at the dinner table.

      – The lonely, anxious night you spent in a hospital bed.

      – The Christmas Eve your dad came home drunk.

And on and on. They all become building blocks of our personal filtering system. We can’t remember everything, but it all becomes part of the mix. Everything gets compressed into a group of voices, a chorus of internal advisors, that take turns speaking up and telling us how to think, feel, and act. Different filters come to the forefront in different situations.

All of this has a direct bearing on our interpersonal relationships. When two people interact, they are relating through their respective filters. The effectiveness of their communication will largely be determined by how well they deal with their own and the other person’s filtering systems.

Recently, my wife Ann and I had a filter-collision of sorts. Around 5:30 p.m., she drove our car home with her mother in the passenger seat. They wanted to repot some of the plants her mom had brought over from her apartment at the assisted living facility. I came out of the house and Ann handed me the plants. I stood there waiting while she helped her elderly mother out of the car.

At that moment, one of my filters I’ll call “Obsession with Details” elbowed its way into my thought process. I followed its prompting and asked my wife, “So, should we do the repotting in the porch, the garage, or in the backyard?” No answer as Ann leaned back into the car to retrieve something. I asked again a little louder. Still no answer as she continued fiddling around the passenger seat.

What I failed to pick up on was the fact that one of Ann’s filters I’ll call “I Can’t Stand Stupid People” had kicked in about an hour earlier at the doctor’s office and still held sway.

Prior to picking up the plants, she and her mother had waited two hours to see the doctor for five measly minutes. Basically, all he did was inform them that his office had ordered the wrong blood test and they’d have to do it all over again. My wife was not pleased.

Back to our driveway, plants in hand, I decided to ask a third time. “So, should we re-pot these things in the porch, the garage, or backyard?”

At that point, Ann looked back at me and responded in an irritated tone, “I know that’s a truly momentous decision, but I’m sure you can handle it.” Ouch. I felt belittled. I interpreted her comments through another one of my filters that I’ll call “I Am Not Stupid!” My internal temperature started to rise.

Because my mother-in-law was standing there, I managed to keep my mouth shut. Then, by the grace of God, I took a moment to step back mentally and ask myself, “What’s going on here? Why did this conflict happen? Why am I getting so upset?” I decided that some negative filters had taken advantage of an opportunity to assert themselves, and we had both played along. Without that insight, I could easily have fumed and pouted the rest of the day. Within a short time, we were able to reconnect, laugh it off, and go on with our day.

Filters come in all shapes and sizes and people can have very different attitudes regarding them.

On one end of the spectrum are people who are in complete denial that they have any filters at all. They are convinced that their perspective is completely objective. They get terribly annoyed and frustrated at others who can’t see things their way.

On the other extreme are people who think they are the only ones with a filter. This person is insecure about their own perspective. They tend to defer way too much to others and undervalue their own way of thinking and feeling. It is easy for them to be dominated by loud, extroverted people. They are reticent to hold up their end of a conversation or contribute on an equal footing. Communication is mostly one-way.

Communication happens best when all parties involved recognize and accept that everyone experiences life through their own personal filtration system. Communication becomes more of a two-way street because each party has a healthy distrust of their own ability to perceive reality. Such individuals are more open to new ideas and other points of view because they are on a continual quest to see beyond any false limitations their own filters may impose. They realize that only through interacting with other people’s filters can they come to understand the pluses and minuses of their own.

There are both good and bad filters. Good ones facilitate healthy communication that is open, honest, and two-way, where both parties feel listened to, respected, and understood. Bad filters inhibit and derail communication. You can recognize the bad ones if they cause you to:

      – overreact

      – shut down or capitulate

      – dominate

      – become manipulative and coercive

      – become judgmental and dismissive

      – lapse into sarcasm

At an organizational level, personal filters take on a much wider significance. The best leaders understand that the higher you go in authority, the less likely you are to be confronted when your filters push you in the wrong direction. The number of Nathans who can speak truth to power too often thins out quite dramatically (2 Samuel 12:1–4). Therefore, excellent bosses do a lot more listening and a lot less telling. They encourage divergent opinions because they refuse to be misled by their own filters of reality. The health and relevance of their organization depend on it.

On the other hand, you can have terrible bosses who get defensive, stop listening to divergent voices, and become captive to their own narrow filtration system. They get stuck and stop growing. Because of the leader’s lack of self-awareness, discontent and stagnation can eventually spread throughout the organization.

The good news is that we all can intentionally learn new, better ways of perceiving. One of the primary ways to enjoy greater success in our interpersonal relationships is to evaluate our existing filters for their effectiveness and make necessary adjustments.

Some of the keys to making your filters work for you and not against you:   

1. Enter communication as a learner, seeing an opportunity to grow.

2. When a counterproductive filter is triggered within you, stop and observe what is going on inside your own head rather than pushing harder.[3]

3. Drop the need to be right.

4. Realize that if you had the other person’s set of filters instead of your own, you would most likely react the same way they do.

5. Stop trying to change others. You can only create an environment where others can choose to change themselves.

6. Don’t take things so personally. People are speaking from their own filters.

7. Make an effort to step outside of yourself and observe others’ reactions as if you were a neutral third party. Seek more to understand than to be understood.

8. Take responsibility for your reactions.

9. Be very cautious in labeling other people’s perspectives as good or bad, right or wrong.[4]

10. Make deepening the relationship more important than sharing information. Realize that we need each other in order to find our way.[5]

Jesus constantly had to deal with counterproductive filters inside the disciples’ heads. One of the most glaring was the false notion that Christ was going to overthrow the Romans and set up an earthly kingdom. That perspective had been nursed and embellished since childhood. Jesus repeatedly taught that his kingdom of love would be established inside people’s hearts, but his followers kept focusing on a military takeover. That wildly erroneous concept badly distorted the communication between the Savior and those he was attempting to train.

One of the most glaring examples of that filter’s negative influence involved two of the three men in his inner circle, James and his brother John. Jesus had been sharing some deep lessons with the disciples regarding his values and priorities. He said things like, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:25 NIV). “But many who are first will be last, and the last first” (Mark 10:31 NIV). Christ also talked about his own upcoming sacrifice (Matt 20:17-19).

Amazingly, the entire discourse apparently went in one of James and John’s ears and straight out the other. Their “Beat the Romans” filter blocked it out completely. It was as if Christ had simply been commenting on the weather.

In a stunning display of hubris, the two brothers then made a personal request that completely contradicted everything their leader had just said. They essentially asked, “Lord, when you smash the Romans and set up your earthly kingdom, could we be the top vice presidents?” (see Mark 10:35–41). That had to be painful for the Lord to hear. It also incensed the other disciples when they caught wind of it.

Jesus responded by planting the seeds of a very different filter that I’ll call “Lead By Serving.” He told his seemingly clueless followers, “Whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant. And whoever of you desires to be first shall be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:43-45 NKJV). Those powerful seeds would sprout and take deep root after his death and resurrection, beginning in the upper room.

The teachings of Christ remain a powerful source of new filters for each of us today. Pray that the Holy Spirit will come and enlighten you like he did the disciples. Ask for personal awareness and a willingness to live above your negative filters and adopt the new ones he longs to instill.  

Notes & References:

[1] Beverly D. Flaxington, Understanding Other People: The Five Secrets to Human Behavior (Lexington, KY: ATA Press, 2010) 15.

[2] Flaxington, 5.

[3] Flaxington, 22.

[4] Flaxington, 23.

[5] Flaxington, 19.

Kim Allan Johnson retired in 2014 as the undertreasurer of the Florida Conference. He and his wife, Ann, live in Maitland, Florida. Kim has written a number of articles for Adventist journals and written three books published by Pacific Press: The GiftThe Morning, and The Team. He has also written three sets of small group lessons for churches that can be viewed at (this website is run by the Florida Conference of Seventh-day Adventists).

Photo by Stephen Kraakmo on Unsplash.

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