A delicacy of perception

A delicacy of perception

A delicacy of perception

Listening to the Singapore Symphony Orchestra playing Beethoven’s Violin Concerto and Mahler’s 1st Symphony the other evening I was reminded of the phrase ‘a delicacy of perception’. If you think that sounds like something out of a mystical book by a reclusive guru you would be wrong. It was a favourite saying of Dr Goh Keng Swee, Lee Kuan Yew’s right-hand man for the Singapore economy. In the early 1960’s he was concerned at how little Singapore knew about itself. He used the phrase to describe how we should be sensitive to others, to understand a nuance, to see between the lines.

The phrase seems particularly relevant in today’s Singapore. Singaporeans have asked for ‘a more gracious society’ so we need to define ‘gracious’ in a way that lifts it out of the Wedding Anniversary / National Anthem mode. I think Dr Goh’s words do that for us. I am sure he intended them to apply to what is perceived. Enjoying a beautiful landscape, having the heartstrings tugged by a moving film, lapping up thought-stirring words, all require a perception beyond just seeing. In a speedy world we forget to smell the roses.

But there is another sense which I think Dr Goh’s phrase prompts us to consider. The ‘delicacy of perception’ refers to the perceiver as much as to the perceived. We have come to think of seeing as something transactional. ‘I look, I learn, I earn.’ But perception is much more than that. It is an investment of thought, of imagination and of giving. It requires the functional side of observing, of course. It also demands that the perceiver thinks.

That input is the imagination of what might be, not just what is. It means that we take the face value we are presented with and enhance it with our own hopes and aspirations. The concept is well expressed in my definition of a sunset – ‘a promise of tomorrow’. It requires a delicacy of perception to see that. What is the point of such investment?

A young lady who dined with us recently was describing what she wanted to learn from her husband. Her life has been difficult, even sometimes traumatic. She has coped well but, as she knows, not perfectly. Her husband has an air of calm. Whatever happens, however upset he is by events around him, he is poised. His cool, his sangfroid, make him a model to her, give her a delicacy of perception about him that is both reassuring and energising.

She has invested her own perception in the undoubted merits of her husband. Her investment has benefitted her beyond comprehension. It has benefitted him too. Most of all it has benefitted the marriage. I think they are entitled to call that a ‘win-win’. You may ask if that isn’t fairly transactional. I suppose it is, in the sense that everything in life is somewhat transactional. But the delicacy of perception that she applies to her husband is a gift.

The roots of the idea are found in reading the other person. The paradox is that the greater rewards are handed to those who think that way first and only secondarily about themselves. Such perception calls for overwhelming curiosity, insatiable interest, unceasing caring. All the things that make humans sensationally special.

All the things that give us ‘a delicacy of perception’.