Anaïs Nin? Babylonian Talmud? Immanuel Kant? G. T. W. Patrick? H. M. Tomlinson? Steven Covey? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: Our preconceptions can dramatically alter the way we perceive the world. There is a saying attributed to the prominent writer Anaïs Nin that reflects this idea:
We don’t see things as they are; we see them as we are.
These words have also been assigned a Talmudic origin. In addition, the popular motivational author Steven Covey used this maxim. Would you please explore this saying?
Quote Investigator: Anaïs Nin did employ this statement in her 1961 work “Seduction of the Minotaur”. She also presented two illustrations of distinctive perceptions in passages that occurred shortly before she wrote the adage. In the first example, two characters named Lillian and Jay reacted very differently to the Seine River in France:
Lillian was bewildered by the enormous discrepancy which existed between Jay’s models and what he painted. Together they would walk along the same Seine river, she would see it silky grey, sinuous and glittering, he would draw it opaque with fermented mud, and a shoal of wine bottle corks and weeds caught in the stagnant edges.
In the second example, Nin described a homeless woman who slept in the middle of the sidewalk in front of the Panthéon in Paris:
…when they tried to remove her to an old woman’s home she had refused saying: “I prefer to stay here where all the great men of France are buried. They keep me company. They watch over me.”
When Nin wrote the adage she did not take credit for the notion. Instead, she pointed to a major religious text:
Lillian was reminded of the talmudic words: “We do not see things as they are, we see them as we are.”
In 2005 an article in Newsweek magazine contained an epigraph that matched the adage under investigation. The statement was identified as an English translation of a comment from a section within the Talmud:
“We do not see things as they are. We see things as we are.”— Rabbi Shemuel ben Nachmani, as quoted in the Talmudic tractate Berakhot (55b.)
This modern citation may help to give insight into the recurrent ascriptions to the Talmud in previous decades. However, the referenced part of the Talmud was concerned with the interpretation of dreams. Another translation indicated that the original statement was within this domain of dream analysis. Thus, the Newsweek translation may be somewhat loose:
R. Samuel b. Nahmani said in the name of R. Jonathan: A man is shown in a dream only what is suggested by his own thoughts…
The maxim has a long history and close matches in English were in circulation by the 1800s as detailed below.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
Continue reading We Don’t See Things As They Are, We See Them As We Are