Updated: Oct 24, 2018
My last living grandmother entered convalescent care earlier this month with a weak heart and dizzy spells. Within a week her nearly 93 years on earth ended as she stepped into eternity where her late husband awaits. Theology aside, reminders of mortality stand like stop signs our lives – inviting reflection.
Maintaining a healthy perspective is a mark of virtue. Philosopher Valerie Tiberius describes it as “having the right perspective on one’s commitments, the right dispositions of thought, feeling, and action in the right strength” (The Reflective Life). Unfortunately, few of us intentionally cultivate this virtue in our own lives. For starters, we rarely attend to life’s stop signs. We are so plugged in to busy-ness that it is difficult to silence our phones long enough to breath deeply. Without time to reflect, we ride the waves of events – good and bad – engaged rationally and emotionally in the moment. Current research in psychology shows that because of this lack of perspective, we tend to:
get overly distressed about things that are unimportant,
take things we value for granted, and
exhibit emotional responses that are not balanced or appropriate to our values.
What does healthy perspective look like?
Imagine you are on a plane, annoyed by another traveler who sits idly while his children run wild. As your own frustration builds, you eye other irritated passengers and through a series of glances realize you have been silently nominated to confront the perpetrator. You slide toward the negligent father and in a brief conversation realize the man is broken in grief over the loss of his wife. In those moments, though nothing changed, everything changed. A new set of facts reinterprets appropriate behavior.
Years ago I was visiting a friend in San Francisco and we took his Vespa for a quick tour of the city. After the first ten minutes or so he asked if I wanted to drive. I had never driven a motorbike before, but it certainly didn’t look too difficult. I took the helm and headed north on Mason toward Fisherman’s wharf. The first block or two was incredibly shaky, and with little confidence I drove far below the speed limit.
My friend tapped my shoulder and suggested I pull over.
“How are you doing?” he asked.
“Okay, it’s a little wobbly,” I shrugged.
“Where were you looking?”
“Straight ahead,” I replied, embarrassed.
“How far ahead?”
“Just in front of the wheel.”
“Try looking down the road – where you want to go. It’ll be easier.”
Like a smooth ride, healthy perspective requires looking further ahead.
It also takes practice.
Practice leads to habit, and habit cultivates virtue. Cultivating a healthy perspective seems to involve both practicing both how we see our world, and how we react to it:
Perhaps you need to practice walking the proverbial mile in another’s shoes.
Perhaps you need to practice viewing life from the proverbial balcony rather than the dance floor.
Perhaps you need to practice gratitude or empathy as you manage your reactions to others.
Practices become habits which cultivate virtue - like fruit on a tree.
Ultimately, though, healthy perspective depends on strong roots, and strong roots need good soil. In this case, good soil looks like settled values – identifying what we are committed to and taking time to affirm or adjust our long-term commitments in light of our life experiences.
When I consider my grandmother’s life, I am reminded of her commitments – to God, and to family – and how they shaped her perspective on moves, relationships, holidays, and daily habits. We all sat at her bedside –children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren – watching her frail frame labor through each breath. But she was not a weak woman. Her perspective was a tangible gift to all of us.