|What are you seeing, and why?|
"I was staring out the window the whole time he was talking to me.
It was a filthy pane of glass; I couldn't get a clear view.
And as he went on and on it wasn't the outside world I could see,
just the filthy pane that I was looking through..."*
"Perspective" is one of my favorite words. In fact, I think my enjoyment of the concept of perspectives is bordering on obsession now. I love perspective because it is always relevant. There is no circumstance that is not effected by it, and rarely is there only one available. Furthermore, a circumstance or situation can change completely just by switching perspectives, even without altering a single element of the objective truth (if there is such a thing as "objective truth", but that's getting pretty deep; I may have to save that discussion for another night).
Merriam-Webster supplies several definitions of the word, of which my favorite is "the interrelation in which a subject or its parts are mentally viewed". There is a lot in that definition- perspective involves relationship ("interrelation"), the mind ("mentally"), and viewpoint ("viewed"). Think of it this way: a subject, or perhaps stimulus, is received and then processed by the brain, resulting in a unique viewpoint.
"I was never focused on just one thing; my eyes got fixed when my mind got soft.
It might look like I'm concentrated on a very clear view.
But I'm as good as asleep; I bet you didn't know.
It takes a lot of it away if you do."*
I try not to make this blog about the practicalities that run my everyday life, but perspective taking is actually something I deal with throughout my day with my six and seven year olds. In a blog with the awesome title of "Everybody Is Stupid Except You," Nate Kornell, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Williams College says, "Taking another person's perspective is among the most difficult things humans do. Compared to other animals we're great at it, but it takes effort" (Kornell, "Neurodevelopment of Perspective Taking in Teens," Psychology Today). I don't have the research in front of me to back this up (shame on me, but it is 1AM), but I remember learning in the psychology courses that I took in college that perspective taking, as an aspect of abstract thinking, is one of the last elements of mental development, taking place in adolescence. Some people never really learn to look at things from another person's point of view, and I'm sure you don't need me to show you any research to prove that. My two children are very intelligent, but tend to be lacking in their social skills, or more specifically, they struggle with "reading" other people by observing their actions, words, expressions, body language, etc. This interferes significantly with their quality of life, or in mom language, I worry that other people won't like them because of it. For example, after watching game shows my daughter developed an annoying habit of making a loud buzzer-like noise when someone answers a question incorrectly. It's been well over a year since she started this, and we are still reminding her on a daily basis that she needs to think about what someone else might feel like before she makes that noise.
"Because, the fact being that, whatever's in front of me is coloring my view.
So I can't see what I'm seeing; in fact, I only see what I'm looking through."*
As I watch my daughter struggle to understand that other people are not usually thinking or feeling the same things she is I am challenged, and I have spent a lot of time over the past few years examining the idea of viewpoint. What elements in our lives make up our unique perspectives, and how do our conflicting perspectives bring about and effect external conflict? It's a hard topic because our perspectives are made up of positive elements, such as interests, desires, needs, personality, strengths, and talents; as well as negative elements, like preoccupations, prejudice, stereotypes, obsessions, habits, and weaknesses. Just examining the development of my own perspectives has been valuable, and remarkably simple. For example, when you're flipping through the channels on the TV, ask yourself, "Why did I stop to watch this particular show? What is it that I like about this, and how does that relate to my life and my experiences?" Then, take a moment to realize that other people have not had the same experiences as you. Think of someone you know who has lived a very different life, or those experiences that you've had that you know that someone who hasn't had the experience couldn't possibly understand.
The hard part about doing this is that I've realized how simple minded I really am. I've realized how easy it is for me to create a stereotype, or even develop prejudice, from a single negative experience. I've realized how easy it is to pick out one trait in a person, and define them by it. I've realized that I have not overcome stereotypes and prejudicial thinking passed down to me from my parents and grandparents, and worse, that I have no idea how to keep my own children from developing their own.
"So again I done the right thing; I was never worried about that.
The answer's always been in clear view.
But even when the window was cleaned I still can't see for the fact,
that when it's clean it's so clear I can't tell what I'm looking through."*
The worst part? There isn't a whole lot I can do to change my perspectives. My culture, my life experiences, my job, my family, my needs, my genetics -- it's all wrapped up inside. And I spend most of my time not really thinking about them, just going on with my life and making my decisions based on them, even though I'm now fully aware of how flawed they are. It's frustrating. But I can see that change does happen, and it happens over time, with growth and understanding and awareness. I think the key to making those changes is exposure. The simplest way to live is to insulate yourself in your own comforts, and that most definitely includes people who live, act, look, and think just like you. It keeps you from being challenged too often, but it doesn't always work. Just like our mothers tell us, we're special, and no other person in the world is just like us. So inevitably we will be confronted with a perspective that is in direct conflict with our own, and we can choose to refuse to acknowledge that there is an infinite way of viewing, and thereby understanding, any subject or situation, and stubbornly inform our detractor that he is flat out wrong. Or we can choose to ask questions and try to discover why he believes what he does, and what in his life has come together to create his perspective. I'm not saying this is the secret to world peace, because I also believe that it's impossible to see something outside of the boundaries created by our own viewpoints, but it can help keep a certain level of peace in relationships. As difficult as it is and as often as I sometimes wish to avoid getting out of my comfort zone, I seek out and value the opportunity to meet, talk with, and possibly even develop a relationship with someone who I suspect looks at life very differently from me. Sometimes I later discover that I simply can not acquire the ability to understand why they think the way they do, and I give up, but other times I have found that my life is enriched.
"So I had to break the window. It just had to be; it was in my way.
Better that I break the window than miss what I should see."*
*Song lyrics from "The Window" by Fiona Apple, from the album Extraordinary Machine, 2005.