Do things look bleak? Try a new point of view.
“It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn’t feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.”
-Neil Armstrong [source]
A healthy perspective (or “reality tunnel”) can make the world look bright and exciting; an unhealthy one can make a minor obstacles seem insurmountable. I know what it’s like to be stuck with a dismal, self-defeating outlook. But I’ve also learned it doesn’t have to be that way.
Our perspectives aren’t set in stone. We can widen, shift, and alter them. If we can change our point of view even slightly, our experience of the world can be profoundly enriched. With practice and an open mind, we can even try out completely different perspectives, each of which can teach us something valuable.
Let’s start with the easiest thing to take for granted: our own existence. The probability of you being you or me being me is staggeringly teensy. If you’re even around to read this, that means we both won the existential lottery. Hooray for us!
Yeah, I know. That doesn’t magically make your problems vanish. But the fact that we’re around to have problems in the first place is worth appreciating.
Our Slender Slice of Space
“The fact that we live at the bottom of a deep gravity well, on the surface of a gas covered planet going around a nuclear fireball 90 million miles away and think this to be normal is obviously some indication of how skewed our perspective tends to be.”
Shifting our perspectives can also show us just how subjective some things are. Like size. On one hand, our entire solar system – not to mention our big-screen TVs – may seem profoundly tiny from a cosmic perspective.
If you enjoy exploring the subjectiveness of spatial dimensions, just wait ’till you ponder the temporal one(s).
Our Stupid Sense of Time
In the brief 200,000 or so years we’ve been around, we’ve managed to figure out a few nifty tricks. Running water. Sewage. Medical science. Ben and Jerry’s.
Not bad for the cosmological equivalent of infants.
You see, the most basic life on earth appeared about 3 billion years ago, making it a fairly late development in a ~13 billion year-old universe. And on the timeline of life on earth, homo sapiens have just popped up.
It’s natural to dismiss this longer-term view of time as somehow less real than our own perception. But, considering the passage of time is subjective, it’s a meaningless objection after all. Years and seconds might be a fairly objective way to measure time, but how long a year feels is not.
What if we could perceive time differently? What amazing things might we discover that we couldn’t see before because our perception of time wasn’t just right?
How about the beauty of a single drop of water?
This glorious display of fluid dynamics happens all the time when it rains. It’s just too fast for our brains to process.
On the other side of the spectrum, the flowing movement of clouds is hauntingly gorgeous, but we ordinarily perceive time too quickly to notice.
The growth of a tree is easy to take for granted. But speed it up so we can watch it happen and a sprouting oak seed becomes awe-inspiring.
Bottom line: all we’re capable of experiencing is an infinitesimal sliver of what actually exists, and our tools for experiencing things in the first place are fundamentally limited.
The Real Value of Perspective-Swapping
As authoritative theories of everything, our perspectives are all worthless.
There are more knowable things about one mote of dust than we could glean from a lifetime of study. Furthermore, according to our current best theories on the physical operations of the universe, it is fundamentally impossible to know everything about the teensiest bit of matter.
Infinite lifetimes spent studying the simplest object could never yield perfect knowledge, so what could possibly justify certainty in any existential or metaphysical speculations based on a single lifetime of inquiry? Should we call it pride, madness, arrogance, sin nature, cognitive bias, or just the human ego at work? Doesn’t matter. We’re all pretty sure we’re right.
If we, instead, regard everyone’s perspectives (especially our own) as cursory observations of a vast mystery, every perspective would actually have value.
How do we learn more about a vast mystery we can only observe cursorily? If we have any respect for the empirical approach, we keep observing. If we’re wise enough, we also pool our resources and share our observations. We test the observations of others by looking from similar angles, poking with similar sticks, testing under similar conditions. Then we compare the results. And we don’t do it just once. We keep observing, sharing, and comparing without end because, little by little, we get a slightly clearer view of the big picture.
Contrast this with adhering to a single observation and rejecting the validity of any others. Which method is likely to reveal more accurate data about an object of study?
In other words, the less we cling to one perspective and the more we open our minds to new ones, the better our understanding of the great mystery will probably be. If your current perspective is making you unhappy, why cling to it anyway?
Of course, cynical or depressed personalities may believe their bleak view is the “real” or most accurate one. Maybe it is, maybe not. But I’m not asking anyone to give up their perspectives. I’m arguing against closing oneself off to exploring the alternatives. Try looking through someone else’s eyes, see if you can see what they see, and then decide. Even if you still think your perspective is more useful or accurate, it will probably be enhanced by the experience.
Make your world more beautiful
Luckily, it’s never been easier to try new perspectives. We’ve seen how our natural perception of space can be extended with microscopes and telescopes, and our experience of time can be augmented with time-lapse and high-speed photography. So too communication technologies (e.g. language, the Internet, blogging) allow us to swap perspectives on life, the universe, and everything. And the more we learn from the perspectives of others, the more things we can learn to love and appreciate, which makes our view of the world more beautiful.
What makes yours beautiful?