Gaining some perspective

A professor in my introductory philosophy class in college used to open class with something like a brain teaser to tweak our perspective. Here’s one:

An electric train is traveling at 70 mph due west. A harsh wind is blowing 40 mph at 30 degrees east-southeast. Which direction and at what speed is the steam blowing?

Now, this is a little easier when you can read back through it, but the answer is, of course, “there is no steam; it’s an electric train.”

Another one was:

Arizona has the largest population of people with asthma. Why?

Some answered that the air must be very polluted. The real answer, though, is that the air is so clean that people with severe asthma move there in large numbers, since it’s so easy to breathe.

It’s a matter of taking a few moments, thinking about the information provided, and gaining some perspective.

Back in the first part of our series on empathy, we gave Roman Krznaric’s definition of empathy from Empathy: Why It Matters and How To Get It as “the art of stepping imaginatively into the shoes of another person, understanding their feelings and perspectives, and using that understanding to guide your actions” (p. x).

Perspective can be difficult, particularly if you systematize your world.

If it’s not obvious already, we’re using perspective to mean “the state of one’s ideas, the facts known to one, etc., in having a meaningful interrelationship.” You might be familiar with the word in terms of spatial relationships (such as making a two-dimensional drawing appear three dimensional by sending lines — such as streets and buildings — toward a vanishing point), and that’s actually how the word originates, as the “science of optics.”

The first appearance of “perspective” as a sort of mental outlook comes in 1762.

For an exercise in perspective, wander on back through history 50 years at a time. To hear interesting perspectives you may not have considered, listen to some Revisionist History.

Let’s make an argument for considering perspectives different from your first take.

First, it’s at the very least an interesting mental exercise, and we spend an awful lot of time not doing any actual thinking. Thanks, Facebook and YouTube!

Next, you don’t even have to see something from another person’s point of view. If you can step outside of your own emotional response to an event or an assertion, it shows you have control over your emotions and your thoughts. Not in a way that shows you don’t feel, but in a way that shows you’re not ruled by emotion, which is particularly important when you’re in a potentially dangerous situation, especially if you’re responsible in such a situation for a family or other group.

Being able to consider various perspectives gives you power, plain and simple.

Let’s now consider seeing something from other people’s perspectives.

You might learn something, particularly about context. I’m going to pick a little bit on President Trump right here (I know, been a while since I’ve done that), in particular with two things, once during the campaign, and once more recently.

The first is “America First.” We actually wrote about this a few years ago in a discussion of context. The America First Committee shut down when the U.S. entered World War II.

On December 7, 1941, the Japanese Navy pulled a surprise attack on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor in the Hawaiian Territory (Hawaii was not yet a state). The attack marked America’s entry into World War II.
It also marked the beginning of the end of the America First Committee, a large anti-war group that shut down on December 10 of that year.
This wasn’t the tie-dyed hippie peace, love and understanding anti-war movement we all know from movies about Vietnam. And it wasn’t the “hate the war, love the troops” anti-war groups we know from the more recent American wars.
This was a “we’re white Protestant Americans, screw everybody else” group. They were hard-left isolationists. They wanted to make sure America didn’t bail out Europe (you know, again, like after the first World War). They wanted America to turn away Jews fleeing the Holocaust. They wanted to shut the borders, cut off aid, and rely on homegrown everything — avoid all international trade as long as possible.

Meanwhile, in a speech this past spring, Trump told a room full of Jewish Republicans that America is full (he also called Benjamin Netanyahu their prime minister, even though Netanyahu is Israel’s prime minister and the people he was speaking to were Americans).

In 1942, boats full of Jews from Europe showed up on American shores. They were told America was full, and they were sent back to Europe, where almost all of them would become Holocaust victims.

And, in reality, America can’t possibly be full. They’re building 31 new houses two blocks away from me. If America weren’t taking new people, the only people who could go into those houses would be vacating 31 other houses, so there’s certainly room for 31 more families. Just saying.

If you have the ability to see the world from someone else’s perspective, it makes it pretty easy to not hurt someone intentionally.

And another reason to consider others’ perspectives is to get an understanding of their communicated intent. Communication is a two-way street, so when you are on the receiving end, maybe take a minute and determine what the person you’re listening to really meant when they said something.


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