A Matter of Perspective
By JIM NICHOLS
When I was younger and a bit braver, I occasionally climbed onto the roof of our house. Usually, it was to replace or secure a shingle. I was struck by the view from there. The whole neighborhood was visible in a way that is much different than what we might call “ground-level.” The ugly wooden gray fences so popular in this area for some reason now appeared as blurry lines between backyards. Cars moving down the street with loud mufflers no longer seemed so fearful. This was apparently what the birds see all the time.
It connected for me with a repeated experience I had in another city. My research job in the hospital had a fourth-floor window that looked down on the helicopter pad. Regularly, fire trucks appeared at the ready and soon, a helicopter would land and unload a patient. Immediately, the door of the nearby emergency room flew open, and a team of strong and fast young people ran out pushing a bed on wheels. Positioning the patient on the bed, they then ran back into the hospital. Because I was inside and they were outside at a distance, the whole event occurred soundlessly except for the chopper landing. There was clearly a story with some drama occurring, but my perspective gave me only limited information.
In contrast to the perspective from above, the view from underneath is equally thought producing. Who among us has not lain under a tree and looked at the sky through the branches? One could observe the sky alone or the branches alone, but the combination of them told you something different.
I awoke from an afternoon nap with the brief snowfall melting outside. Still lying down, the dripping off the roof and trees was magical. Once I stood up, that magic turned to simple observation.
When I was away at college, my family had a foreign exchange student living with them. She occupied my room in the house which meant that, during college vacations, I was displaced and had to sleep in the sewing room on an uncomfortable sofa bed. The student reported that she relished lying on the bed (in my room) looking out the second story windows at the large elm trees. Even though she was from Switzerland, her window perspective of middle America was enriching to her.
Similarly, when my wife and I were on sabbatical in another city in winter, the apartment bedroom looked out onto a small park and was a memorable perspective of a different type of life for us, even though it was temporary.
Perspective matters a lot. Furthermore, it is not just visual, sensory perspective. It was not long ago that I began to realize that I am often the oldest person in any room. How can that be? That is not a complaint, just an observation.
Just as my perspectives can be different as circumstances change (for example, above or below), my perspectives on other people need to have the same flexibility. Any encounter with another person occurs in a specific place at a specific time. We do not know where that person was five minutes or five years ago. Their past and present history is unknown to us. Perhaps if we were better at adapting our perspective of others, our connections with them would be more harmonious and helpful to both ourselves and them. We might look at a person’s behavior differently if we squatted down psychologically or emotionally. Or, perhaps climbed up a ladder so we saw them from above.
It is this latter approach that God may be leading us to. We do believe that every person is a created being from God, do we not? Can I remember that when my frustration mounts with bad drivers and narcissistic politicians?
Our tolerance does not need to extend to lying and cheating, especially when it hurts other people. There is certainly a time to stand firm for what seems right to us, but we do not have a view into the hearts of others. Perhaps we need to move more lightly through life. That may mean some incorporation of our perspective at the time. Scripture speaks of “. . . God looking at the heart.” That sounds as if it is worth a try.
Jim Nichols is a retired Abilene Christian University biology professor and current hospice chaplain