Anthony Gliedman, New York City commissioner of Housing, found an ingenious solution to urban blight. His agency pasted vinyl decals over the broken windows of hundreds of the city’s abandoned buildings. Some looked like curtains, some like venetian blinds…some had pictures of flowerpots with imaginary geraniums blossoming. All throughout the devastated south Bronx, dilapidated buildings began to convey the illusion of cheery life inside. Crime statistics went down in neighborhoods where the decals went up. Quoted in the New York Times, the housing commissioner explained: “Rebuilding will take years and require hundreds of millions of dollars. And while we’re waiting, we want people to feel good about their neighborhood. Perception is reality.”
We seem to be daily confronted with choices that challenge us to discern perception from reality. Sometimes it probably makes little difference. Other times, perceptions if held long enough and tightly enough, can turn into reality. We see this often in both positive and negative ways. The husband told repeatedly that he is selfish, becomes less caring. The child told over and over that she will succeed, does succeed.
Admiral William Crowe, Jr., Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Presidents Reagan and Bush, was asked to comment on making good decisions in the uncertainty and fog of battle. After a lifetime of studying military history, his conclusion is that victorious generals are wrong 95% of the time. Defeated generals, he said, are wrong 99% of the time. We can be wrong 95% of the time, but we dare not be wrong about reality when ultimate questions are at stake. These are the crucial 4% issues that determine success and failure.
My favorite story of perception and reality is that of a 12-year-old boy around the turn of the century, living on an isolated farm miles away from the nearest town. Imagine his excitement as he burst into the farmhouse one day shouting “Ma! Pa! The circus is coming to town. Can I go?” “If you get all your chores done ahead of time, we’ll see” his father smiled. When the big day arrived and the boy had risen at the crack of dawn to finish all his chores, his father reached into his overalls and placed a bill in his hands.
“Wow! A whole dollar bill” he exclaimed. And clutching the most money he had ever had in his life, the boy rode his horse into town as fast as he could…arriving at the dusty Main street lined with people just as the circus parade began. From the end of the street came clowns! Then a marching band in bright red uniforms! Wagons of caged tigers staring through the bars straight at him! Jugglers and acrobats. And even elephants! The parade passed by with the blare of trombones and roar of lions. “This is the most wonderful thing I’ve ever seen” said the boy, his eyes wide with excitement.
Withdrawing the precious dollar bill from his pocket, he ran out into the street and pressed it into the hand of the last performer, a tall clown in baggy pants. “Thank you, sir!” he shouted, and before the clown could say a thing, the boy dashed back to his horse and rode home.
What a tragedy. There was so much more reality to the circus, just waiting for the boy to experience…yet the boy only saw the parade.
This boy’s tragedy can be ours as well. Don’t spend the precious dollar of your one and only life on the parade.