A friend and fellow blogger’s recent post on perspective and context spurred this post. In summary (although I urge you to read for yourself — he’s a writer with appreciable talent and a sense of humor that brings me to tears), one’s perspective on an event is critical to one’s interpretation of the event.
Obvious, really. We’re all limited by our perspective, our point of view. On a practical front, this means I can only see in one direction at a time. My children run from the other room, both screaming about the other. Someone hit (or kicked, pushed, licked, touched, or just looked at) someone else. Their stories differ, my peaceful nap/writing time/shower ends, and I simply didn’t see what happened. I can’t be the judge and jury from whom they each yearn to curry favor. I simply didn’t have the physical perspective on the event to judge the facts of the event.
But neither do they. They’re limited by line of sight as well. And even if we could employ instant reply at home (and thank goodness we can’t), perspective would still cloud the larger issue: intent. Even when I’ve seen the wrong or perceived wrong, I’m still largely blinded to intent. I’m grateful to say I can’t read minds, theirs or anyone else’s. I can, since they’re my children and we’re together 24/5.5, I am often able to hypothesize intent. My older’s rarely guilty of inflicting pain maliciously, but he is accident-prone, bumping into his volatile brother, hitting a bit too hard with the duct tape sword, and generally taking up more space than one would think his 65 pounds could manage. My younger, on the other hand, is likely to strike his gentle sibling in anger even if he just suspects his older brother is considering an undesirable act. Knowing these tendencies doesn’t allow me to know what happened, but it can help me facilitate a discussion about intent.
Intent. Reading people challenges all of us more than we often realize, and we’re quite limited in our capacity to guess the intent of another. Some, like my younger, assume intent to harm (or scare, humiliate, fold, mutilate, or spindle) in any touch or look, or at least any from his sibling. As I’ve learned more about the depth of his difficulty reading nonverbal communication and appreciated the extent to which he fails to see the point of view of others, I’m learning to interpret the world for him. His awareness of the same increases as he grows, offering more chances for a bit of metacognition about his relationship struggles. Although I doubt intuiting intent will ever be natural for him, I’m hopeful he can learn the skills needed to navigate the social world.
Certainly perspective spreads beyond what we see or otherwise sensed. The heart of perspective is our ego, all that is the I within. Centered in one’s ego (and we are almost always centered there), it’s easy to create the misconception that one understands all the intent around us. While few adults would state the world revolves around them, our perceptions of others are borne from our own understanding of ourselves. As a Caucasian, 40-year-old, divorced, middle-class, homeschooling, Unitarian Universalist, suburban-dwelling, liberal, scientific-minded, living in the Midwest United States (I could go on), I see the world a certain way. As a fairly self-aware individual, I can, to some extent, see where the holes in my understanding of others could occur. As committed to compassion and peace, I strive to appreciate intent (or at least understand the context) of the actions and words of those outside of my immediate understanding.
I rely heavily on connection to understand the acts and words of others. When meeting another woman who also had children, my mother relied on the connection of motherhood. I’ve found this bond quite helpful when trying to think and act compassionately about others, but the most profound sense of this bond came during nights in 2001, watching footage of the bombings of Afghanistan. While nursing my younger, I felt intimately connected with mothers half a world away geographically and worlds away socially and economically. We’d given birth, worried about our children, rooted for them in their struggles, and anguished in the face of their pain. We’d shared our bodies for nine months and often our milk for months and years beyond that time. We’d loved deeply.
So while I know some of those children grow to be violent and dangerous, many also grow to be scientists, plumbers, pacifists, clergy, doctors, teachers, moms, and dads. All are people, another connection point. Like myself, those a world away (or simply a neighborhood or street away) have experienced pleasure and pain, they yearn to have enough to eat, clean water to drink, a safe place to live. Given those assurances, they long for understanding from others. They’re human, just like I am, and therefore they deserve my compassion and my attempt to see their perspective.
Perspective and context. We share some perspective with all of humanity, even if only that of the foibles of the human ego. Appreciating context fosters compassionate consideration for others despite our differences in perspective. Seeing the evil acts of one who comes from a society, community, or family that is deeply impoverished, without hope, and without personal power gives context to the wrongs. Not that we should disregard all wrongs as products of poor upbringing or impoverished circumstances, but we should see the role one’s life circumstances plays on outcome. The changes we make in the world should address these circumstances rather than simply punish the outcome.
But back to daily life. The guy who crept up on my bumper this morning? Perhaps he’s stressed about a job interview, racing to find a sick child, or simply a bit too egoic to be on the road now. The mom on the playground who chews out my child for a wrong he didn’t commit? Perhaps she saw the situation from a different physical and mental perspective. Was she bullied as a child, is she beaten at home, or is she just needing less coffee in the morning? Who knows. As long as I remember my perspective isn’t hers, and that my compassion can extend to her even when she grumps at my child, I’m creating a more peaceful world and teaching my kids how to do the same.