perspective (because we really really need it)

A few weeks back, several people were having a lively conversation in the entry way of my home. This space is flanked by a hallway on one side and the kitchen and family room on the other and is anchored by well loved hard wood floors. While we chatted, my daughter Kaija laid down on the floor to stretch. Any of you who know Kaija know that this is not unusual. Kaija is her own (wonderful) person and doesn’t conform to conventions. She’s a free spirit and can converse just as confidently sitting, standing (on her feet or hands or head), from the ground or the top of a tree, independent of others or (preferably) wrapped around them. This evening, she found the floor and stretched out upon it. It was not a warm evening and she was dressed in fur lined slipper boots and a warm puffy jacket. While engaged fully in the conversation occurring around her, she began to stretch out. At one point, her slippers and her stretch worked together to catapult her backward across the floor. Smiling, she continued the motion. Next we all knew, she was carrying on with us while “scootching” herself, on her back, down the hall, back through the entry way, into the kitchen, around the island, through the family room and back again. We all just kept talking. After a while she acknowledged, and we agreed, that this was a wildly bizarre and totally fun way to engage. 

I’ve thought a lot, since then, about the fact that what we see in this world is largely determined by the posture from which we view it. By moving through our home on her back, Kaija took in entirely new images of her familiar childhood home and gained an appreciation for our scuffed and well-worn floor. These new perspectives might be gifts to me if I simply took the time to pursue them. From the ground up, the view of home would be uncluttered, spacious, and new. The floors would feel sure and stable and “right.” It would be helpful to have access to these views when I feel mired by the clutter and crumb of daily life in an open and widely accessed home. If I felt overwhelmed by a mess I could simply look up to realize the space and calm that exists in my home just above the disarray.

There is plenty of research that shows a relationship between posture and mood (highlighted this week in this New York Times article). The way we hold our physical selves impacts our mood, behaviors, and, even, memory. When we fold our selves in around the small devices in our hands it appears that we are more prone to act in submissive ways and feel poorly about our selves. While these findings are of importance, my bigger concern is that we rarely take time to move out of our familiar postures to see how the world might look from a different perspective.

The issue, as I see it, is primarily twofold. First, humans have a propensity to assume that other people have and value the same things that they themselves have and value. This isn’t necessarily an evil tendency, it’s simply human nature. Since we are the center of our own experiences, most of us do not automatically consider the vast differences that exist between people. Even the most empathic person can find places where their own bias and/or assumptions have led them to have blind spots about how they treat others and interact in the world. Second, the more time we spend in digital spaces, the more we “teach” our devices our preferences, leading them to feed us a never ending supply of self-centric data. We have a certain political leaning, our “clicks” regarding that leaning are tracked and logged, which leads our devices to feed us more of that which we will agree with. The same can be said of our intellectual, emotional, spiritual, and monetary preferences and leanings. Over time we begin to internalize this as evidence that our views and preferences really are those of everyone since it’s all we ever encounter. From this place it’s easy to see our own views, values, and preferences as “right” and “normal.” 

I like walking on my feet so I experience the world from the perspective of a 5 foot 1 inch white female person. Without even thinking about it, it would be easy to unconsciously assume that everyone else experiences the world in this same way. If I did this I might assume that everyone can fit easily into an airplane seat, that strangers will usually be kind and open, that math is impossible and, therefore, “stupid,” and that relationships are the most valuable thing in the universe to everyone. I would also be horribly wrong. 

When Kaija scooted through the house on her back I was reminded of how inaccurate the unconscious assumption that others are just like us is. It is important that I remember this. I certainly caught sight of this when I spent a day in Ferguson, Missouri, and then, later, St. Louis, this fall. I believe to my core that the world not only LOOKS different based upon the socio economic class, ethnic and/or racial background, and many more traits of the eyes doing the looking, but also that it IS different based upon those things. Kaija’s reality was different as she roamed the house on her back than mine was as I walked upright. The truth is, however, that walking isn’t better than scootching, it’s simply different. Might you read that again, more slowly this time? 

Walking isn’t better than scootching, it’s simply different.

I’ve written, in the past, about the marginalized who serve in professions that benefit us all but whom are often treated as “less than” by the general public. The people who clean the bathrooms we use at Target, the individuals who harvest our produce, the folks who collect our garbage, and more. These are just some of the people who I imagine might benefit from our seeing the world from their perspective for a day (or more). The reality is, WE would benefit as well. Our worlds and perspectives would become wider and our thinking more complex. This is never, in my opinion, a bad thing.

It’s easy to know of our own stressors, automatic to know our own values. It’s effortless to identify our challenges and sometimes difficult to see our privilege. If we have plenty of community and family and warmth and cheer this month, it’s easy to assume others do as well. It’s uncomfortable to realize this may not be true. It takes work to be authentic as one’s self and still stretch to understand and empathize with who others truly are. This is, however, work worth doing.

This is a time of year (the hurried holiday season) and the point in an election cycle (in the U.S.) where assumptions, automatic thoughts, attributions, and feelings run high. If we are to live in harmony with our neighbors, in peace with our communities, or even just tolerate those who we perceive to be different, we must keep this tendency in check. Every once in a while it would do us good to stretch into new perspectives from which to view the world. To ask more questions and to listen better. To be willing to lay down our confident postures in deference to being warm and open and non judgemental. To be willing to tolerate the floor scootchers in a world of upright walkers or, if we’re brave enough, to join them on the ground for a glimpse of the world from their perspective...and a bit of the adventure of doing something new.

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