Keeping Things In Perspective

September 24th, 2013

cats eyes

A teacher asked the class to draw anything they wanted. Then she walked around looking at each child’s drawing. She stopped and asked one kid what she was drawing. She said “God.” The teacher said, “But no one knows what God looks like.” The kid said, “They will in a minute.”

What we create is what we see and what we see is what we look for. The problem is that our perspective is often too narrow. Japanese author Soseki Natsume describes this narrowness through the eyes of a cat,

Consider human eyes. They are embedded in pairs within a flat surface, yet their owners cannot simultaneously see to both left and right… Being thus incapable of seeing in the round even in the daily happenings of life in his own society, it is perhaps not surprising that man should get excited about certain one-sided aspects of his limited view of reality.

Our view is limited by our perspective. This is never more true than when a group of people are standing in front of a piece of art. An event called ArtPrize takes place each year near us. It’s a big deal and lot of fun. The whole city is filled with art from around the world. Gun violence is a common theme this year, because everyone is thinking about gun violence even if no one knows how to talk about it constructively.

Guns are portrayed from a number of different perspectives. One exhibit is called “Erased”. The artist drew a large replica of an AR15 assault rifle, and visitors are given an eraser with the name of a recent victim of gun violence printed on it. Each person erases part of the weapon. Another exhibit is a fiberglass replica of a semi-automatic pistol which the artist says he’s displaying to honor the role of the gun in American society. A third display is 26 large steel wool balls, each to hold one of the victims of the Sandy Hook school shooting.

The display that had the greatest impact on me was called “Immaculate Perception.” You walk into a room that is set up like a child’s nursery. When you first look, you see all the soft colors and the serene feeling of a baby’s crib but when you look more closely, you see that there are guns all over the nursery. The pink mobile over the crib is all guns. The slats of the crib are in the shape of guns.

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It’s all in the perception. The artist says he’s not making any political point, other than illustrating that everything is about perception. We see what we look for. Look closer into the nature of things, and its often shocking, because reality is more violent than we want to believe or else reality is more beautiful than we ever thought possible.

C S Lewis said,

What you see and what you hear depends a great deal on where you are standing. It also depends on what sort of person you are.

That’s a powerful statement when you think about it.  Art challenges us maybe more than anything else to question what we are seeing, and how it reflects who we are.

There is a famous story about  six blind people who were asked to determine what an elephant looked like by feeling different parts of the elephant’s body. There are many version of the story, but my favorite one is the Jain version.

The blind man who feels a leg says the elephant is like a pillar; the one who feels the tail says the elephant is like a rope; the one who feels the trunk says the elephant is like a tree branch; the one who feels the ear says the elephant is like a hand fan; the one who feels the belly says the elephant is like a wall; and the one who feels the tusk says the elephant is like a solid pipe.

A teacher explains to them:

All of you are right. The reason every one of you is telling it differently is because each one of you touched the different part of the elephant. So, actually the elephant has all the features you mentioned.

One of the reasons I like this version is because Jainism is a very peaceful religion. Its one of the most ancient religions, almost extinct now. Jainism has a system for approaching life with self awareness and perspective. No single statement, person or perspective can fully capture reality. It is in the form of seven statements that you can apply to any situation before responding.

They are:
1. “in some ways it is”
2. “in some ways it is not”
3. “in some ways it is and it is not”
4. “in some ways it is and it is indescribable”
5. “in some ways it is not and it is indescribable”
6. “in some ways it is, it is not and it is indescribable”
7. “in some ways it is indescribable”

This is a clever way of saying “take a breath, count to ten, don’t react too quickly.” By the time you apply these seven statements to the situation that’s making you angry, sad, offended, whatever, you will likely see the situation from a much broader perspective.

Before we jump to conclusions, and take things so personally, or try to name or label them quickly, we can give ourselves some space.

Try it out on some easier issues. This situation is unfair. In some ways it is. In some ways it is not. Etc

Then try it out on a much more complex and heated issue.

On the gun violence issue, there are two sides and both sides think the other is insane. On one side, people think they are safer when they are armed and no evidence to the contrary will sway their opinion. The more shootings there are, the more likely they are to go out and buy more guns.  On the other side, people think guns are out of control, and there should be a lot more regulation.

I know I find myself way on one side of this issue. When I hear that the NRA spent 21 million dollars in 2012 on their youth outreach, and that their organization has a base only miles from Sandy Hook school where the shooter grew up learning to shoot guns, it seems back and white to me.

But I need to apply the same process to my assumption that guns are out of control in America. Is this true? In some ways it is. In some ways it is not.

At least it gives me pause to stop and reflect on my own assumptions.

Mind you, this is not an excuse for indifference or inaction. There are some times where you have to nail your colors to the mast and say “this is where I stand.” I know what’s true for me, and I will stand by it even if my knees knock, my voice shakes and the ground trembles beneath me.

But if we can approach our convictions with a hint of openness and perspective, we won’t exacerbate the very attitude we’re fighting against.

Start with who you want to be, and let your vision and your perspective match this self image. If you want to be a peaceful, loving, open-minded person, then look with peace, love and openness.  Don’t pigeon hole yourself, and don’t limit yourself to your limited view on things.

You can be more than one thing at a time. You can hold different perspectives without splitting in two. It’s the liberating power of both/and thinking. Try putting one foot in your usual point of view, and the other in a new one, and enjoy the feeling of stretching your mind and opening your heart. Your mind is large enough for all the shades of grey.

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