Perspective is everything. It is perhaps the most important ability to cultivate since life assaults us intensely and regularly, dragging us down into the details that can be discouraging. Thus, we must discover unique ways to find emotional space to recapture the bigger picture despite the press of the immediate. After all, there are only a few things really worth fretting about. Many things are challenging but can be overcome with the right outlook. A wise man once said that life is 10% of what happens to you and 90% of your reaction to it. How true.
I’d like to share with you some stories that illustrate the importance of perspective.
1. Over the years, I have become friendly with the Tebow family whose youngest son, Tim, is the Denver Broncos quarterback who constantly amazes with his incredible comebacks…seemingly ‘miraculous’ comebacks. He is supposedly now the most popular professional athlete in the world. Imagine that! Yet the pundits routinely declare him dead, then alive, the best, then the worst. And so it goes. Yet talk about perspective. Timmy, who is a fine young man, when questioned about his ability to make it as a big time quarterback deflects the question by providing context and perspective. He simply responds to the hype -good and bad- by telling the questioners and critics that while he loves football, it is hardly important in the big scheme of things. Once you have seen third world suffering, or spent time in orphanages in the Philippines, football is relatively unimportant. How disarming and utterly true. Does the Super Bowl really matter when put up against the suffering in Darfur, Egypt or Libya where millions are being routinely slaughtered, trafficked, raped and imprisoned? Tim is able to maintain perspective since he has been up close and personal with real people with unimaginable challenges which make trivial the pundits’ inquiries.
2. One of the greatest gifts ever given me was to be exposed to the ancient nation of Ethiopia when I was 24. Living among the poorest of the poor gave me a different take on what I wanted my life to look like. I have now taken all three of my boys to Ethiopia. It puts lots into perspective. My hope was that exposure to real need would be freeing, particularly from a form of peer pressure that can be so destructive here in America. To my delight, it seems to be working. They are, as Harvard sociologist David Reisman observed, ‘inner directed’, pursuing things they think important rather than what others deem important for them. I think that Ethiopia contributed to their freedom.
3. The following is a story told about our sixth President, John Quincy Adams, and his son Brooks. As the story goes, the busy President took a day off and went fishing with his son. We have an insight into that particular day since each recorded their feelings in their respective diaries. Brooks noted in his, ‘I went fishing with my father. A truly wonderful day.’ President Adams, by contrast, wrote: ‘A day away with son Brooks. A wasted day.’ A shared experience, yet one that each perceived very differently.
4. I heard recently of a documentary about happiness. It is a fascinating global exploration of what truly makes people happy. The producers interviewed individuals both in abject poverty as well as those of great wealth and accomplishment. One story was quite stunning. A supermodel who had the perfect family and great public acclaim had a freak thing befall her following a violent altercation with her sister. After an intense argument, the model fell. The sister proceeded, quite literally, to drive over her fallen sister, rolling over her beautiful face. And while the model miraculously survived, she was grossly disfigured. Shortly after, her husband left her, adding insult to injury. This once stunning lady was now robbed of her physical beauty and quite alone. Operation after operation only compounded her new cruel reality. In this documentary, the producers asked this once beautiful supermodel about her personal view of happiness. Her response was shocking. After working through the emotions of losing all that she prized, she had an epiphany and a quiet peace came into her life and thinking. She began to recalibrate the meaning of her life. And for the first time, she was really happy. How’s that for a fresh perspective. Oxford scholar C.S. Lewis put it this way in his children’s book, The Magician’s Nephew: “What you see depends a good deal on where you are standing.
5. Scott Peck’s The Road Less Traveled starts with the words, “Life is very difficult.” We all need reminders to keep everything in perspective. One for me is a photograph of Heather Wimmer and her two young daughters. The photo was taken shortly after her diagnosis of brain cancer. The shot is from behind as the three gaze out at the ocean. Heather died not too much later. She was a lovely, caring woman. This picture helps me remember what truly matters.
6. One of my ten favorite books is a short one by psychiatrist Victor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl found himself in a German concentration camp during World War II. His observations are striking. Those who survived the hellish ordeal were rarely the physically strong, but rather those with an internal core, an interior spiritual life, something or someone that provided them meaning. I often remember a quote by Nietzsche that I memorized in college: “He who has a ‘why’ can endure any ‘how’.”
So the question for us is how do we maintain perspective. Each of us needs to find those things that cause us to get out of our own way and to again see the big picture. How do we find and hold onto a transcendent vision of life? The brilliant metaphysical poet John Donne kept a scull on his desk to remind him of the brevity of this life. (Pretty sick…but it seemed to work for him.) So discover something that reminds you of the larger vision for your life. It could be a shell from the ocean, a picture of your grandfather, a cross, a note from your daughter, (please no sculls). In the utter intensity of this life, we can lose our way if we don’t have triggers that remind us of all that truly matters.