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Pillars of Joy: Day 1 (Perspective)

“Changing the way we see the world in turn changes the way we feel and the way we act, which changes the world itself.”

This is the first of 8 posts exploring the 8 Pillars of Joy as outlined in Douglas Abrams’s The Book of Joy, featuring the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

This morning, I learned that my Memorial Day plans had been canceled because of bad weather. My immediate reaction was mild disappointment, but I was somewhat expecting it. Had I not known about the weather situation, I would probably have been more upset. This is a simple example of how perspective can change the way we feel, but it reveals a pretty profound truth about the relationship between what we know about the world and how we respond to it. The more we can “zoom out” and see more than what is right in front of us, the better we are able to manage the difficulties ahead. Just like we don’t stare at the road immediately in front of the car when we drive; we keep our heads up and look to see what is coming in the near future. This helps us avoid potential disasters, or at least minimize their risk.

In another context, the importance of perspective is the “ability to reframe our situation more positively,” according to psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky’s definition. It means more than just mitigating disappointment by expecting bad news; it means recognizing that bad news isn’t all bad. For instance, though I missed out on some fun times with friends, I had more time to do other things I wanted to do (namely rest and read and write).

Now, I know this is way easier said than done, especially when it comes to situations that are more serious than rained-out recreational plans. You can’t tell grieving parents whose child succumbed to a battle with cancer that they should just “look on the bright side.” At least you shouldn’t do this; I have a whole diatribe about the “everything happens for a reason” cliche and what people can do with such a pointless statement. No, reframing isn’t always the easiest (or even the best) option when pain is new and fresh. It may take some time and healing before we can see how our suffering was actually beneficial in any way.

As my mind wandered in search of insights on perspective today, I thought about the recent “Laurel vs. Yanny” debate, which of course resurrected memories of the “white/gold vs. blue/black” debate several years ago. In both instances, we are faced with a terrifying fact about ourselves: we quite literally do not perceive reality the same way as other people. Yes, this is somewhat obvious and has provided centuries of fodder for philosophers. However, it cannot be understated what is happening here. Two people standing next to each other, listening to the exact same word being spoken, actually may hear two different words. The same with the dress debate: looking at that image, your mind chooses to see either white and gold or black and blue. We don’t even have control over how our mind interprets information about the world. If this doesn’t bother you and make you question your grip on reality at least a little, you should just stop reading this now.

I do take some comfort in knowing that illusions of this kind are rare examples of how different our perceptions can be, and for the most part, we tend to agree on basic facts about reality. Still, it makes me wonder about all the arguments and problems I had with my ex-wife. How many of those truly were my fault? How often did I do or say something that genuinely warranted the kind of anger she felt? This is where I ended up after thinking all this over: I often did not understand where she was coming from, or at least I didn’t empathize very well. I knew when she was upset or angry, and I often knew why, but it still didn’t always make sense to me. I did not view things the same way, so I found it hard to understand why something  that seemed harmless to me would be so loathsome to her. What I have come to learn (through repeated conversations with family, friends, and my counselor), is that as much as I didn’t understand her point of view, she was equally ignorant and dismissive of mine.

Probably the single most important decision that has helped me reorient myself in terms of recognizing truth is this: I have questioned my own perceptions. Rather than trust solely in my own ability to interpret reality correctly, I have enlisted the help of allies who helped me see where I had made mistakes and where I had held on to the truth. My ex, as far as I can tell, has refused to do this. She is unwilling even to consider the possibility that she is not the pitiful victim she believes, nor is she able to recognize just how much damage she is doing to our children in the process.

Finally, that brings me to the kids. Reading The Book of Joy helps to manage some of the grief I feel, but there is still so much pain in the memory of my beautiful children and their utter rejection of me. So far, I have been fortunate to remember that their current feelings are not permanent, and their opinion of me and my actions has been quite perniciously colored by my ex-wife. Still, I have to try to think of what this situation has looked like through their eyes. I had promised them many times that I would be a part of their family and a part of their lives. I had given them some measure of relief from the emotional turbulence of their mother’s reign. Now, it must appear that I have abandoned them. Are they terrified without me there? Are they relieved that at least they no longer have to see me bruised, bleeding, insulted, emasculated? I don’t know. I simply cannot discern what they are thinking or feeling, but I know they are suffering one way or the other.

The book says that recognizing the limitations of our perspective is important because only then can we begin to adjust our vantage point. If we can see threats as challenges, we can find the courage to overcome them. If we can see failures as opportunities, we can turn our despair into hope. When we do this, we can begin to understand how it is possible for joy to exist in a world with so much suffering. We can’t always change the facts, but we can change how we respond to them. That is how we find joy again.

Tomorrow’s post: Humility.

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