“Every event has many aspects and naturally one event can be viewed from many, many different angles.” – Tenzin Gyatso, 14th Dalai Lama
“A little perspective. That’s it. I’d like some fresh, clear, well-seasoned perspective.” – Anton Ego, in Ratatouille, by Brad Bird & Jan Pinkava
We pulled to the side of the road halfway through Spain’s Sistema Iberico mountains, on our way to the Fiesta de San Fermin – more commonly known as the running of the bulls. The sun was beginning to set, and since Pamplona was still a few hours away, we decided it was a good time to eat our picnic dinner.
As I watched the sun move towards the horizon, I thought about my family back in the US and how for them, the same sun was directly overhead. Here I was, looking at a star one-hundred million miles away, watching as it slowly faded from sight because of the rotation of the Earth beneath my feet. Suddenly I understood the Zen riddle, “At dusk the cock announces dawn; At midnight, the bright sun.”1
What’s Your Point of View?
We each experience life from our unique point of view. It’s the perspective that we are most familiar with, and for most of us, the one in which we spend the majority of our time. But every once in a while, during moments like that Spanish sunset, something happens that helps us appreciate a different side of things. Our worldview suddenly expands, and we realize that our own perspective is just one of many.
Great storytellers understand the power of a perspective shift. It’s a favorite trick of Theodor Seuss Geisel, more commonly known as Dr. Suess, whose stories Horton Hears a Who! and How the Grinch Stole Christmas! both take place on Whoville – located on a floating speck of dust, or a snowflake, depending on the story.2
Hollywood also uses the tactic. Consider the closing credits shown in the two 60-second clips below. In the final minute of DreamWorks’ movie Antz, the camera pans back to show that the film’s entire journey – from the ant colony to the legendary Insectopia and massive water reservoir – all happened in a small piece of central park. (Fast forward to the 3:40 mark)
Columbia Picture’s Men in Black ends in a similar way. The camera zooms out from New York City, then the Earth, and then the Solar System. When it reaches the level of the Milky Way, suddenly the entire galaxy is shown contained in a marble. It’s a marble that, as fans of the movie might remember, spent the entire movie on the collar of a cat named Orion.
It can be easy to dismiss these examples as simple storytelling tactics, but the point is much more real. From a certain perspective, the Earth is a floating speck of dust not unlike the one on which the Whos reside. It can be a challenge for us to see the Earth in this way since, for us, it’s much more. As the astronomer Carl Sagan so brilliantly expressed in Pale Blue Dot:
“That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”3
Check out the rest of Sagan’s reflections in this 4-minute animation.
For me, every sunrise, sunset, full moon, and clear night sky is a reminder that I’m on a speck of rock hurtling through an incomprehensibly large universe. But I am here. I get to write my story. It helps me appreciate what a gift that is.
Choose Your Perspective and Write Your Story
Stories come in many perspectives, from snowflakes and anthills to alien marbles and Pale Blue Dots.
Each of us is also writing our own story, and we can choose the lens through which we view that story.
So many of our problems are the result of a narrow point of view. We assume that the person who cut us off in traffic is a real jerk until we realize it’s a man rushing his pregnant wife to the hospital. Or we get angry that our cell phone battery is about to die until we realize we have more computing power in our pockets than the largest supercomputers had only a few decades ago. “It is very rare or almost impossible that an event can be negative from all points of view,” advises the Dalai Lama. “Therefore, it is useful when something happens to try to look at it from different angles and then you can see the positive or beneficial aspects.”
Seek out different perspectives. Explore other religions, do volunteer work for someone less fortunate, talk to a stranger at a bar, or discover new parts of yourself by meditating or journaling. If you’re in a challenging situation or stuck in a narrow point of view, try asking some of these questions:
- What story am I telling?
- Can I tell this story from a different point of view?
- What would this story look like to someone who is standing over there?
- How would an unbiased observer approach this problem?
- How would I behave in this situation if I already knew what was going to happen?
The size of our world, our view, and our problems, is a choice.
We can’t choose what happen’s to us, but we can always choose how we look at it. We have the power to change perspectives, and it can make a world of difference.
- Allen Watts in The Way of Zen [↩]
- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whoville [↩]
- Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pale_Blue_Dot [↩]