The Power of Perspective

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Chalice lighting

We come together today to be as one
We arrive with all that we share
And with all of our differences
What we share is deep and it is broad
It is the core of what it is to be human
And yet, our differences,
Our diverse experiences,
Our myriad ways of seeing the world,
Our various ways of interacting,
They can keep us from true connection
These can hinder relationships
Let us strive to see one another in the light of our commonality
By understanding our differences

Message, part 1 – by Rev. Andy Pakula and Alexis Granum

Andy

We’re going to do something a bit different today. Alexis and I are both going to speak in this part of the message.

The place I’d like to start is at what I have learned is the British go-to standby topic: the weather. Lately, the weather has been wonderful. But, of course, the weather in London is always mild and wonderful. It never gets too hot or too cold and there are virtually no mosquitos! I lived for a long time in Boston, Massachusetts and I can assure you, we’ve got great weather here!

Alexis

Whereas for me, moving here was moving to a cold place – I spent much of my childhood in a land where 21℃ is not uncommon in November, and summer days get up to 37 or 38 with some frequency. Then we moved here, and this gave me some issues when I moved back. I had adjusted enough to England that when I was first back living in North Carolina, I was ready to start picnicking in late February – “It’s sunny outside and kind of warm! We must enjoy it before it vanishes!” – which my housemate thought was...not normal.

Andy

Well, that seems to be a question of perspective. What you think about the weather depends on the weather you’ve lived with in the past.

How about pets? That’s got to be an easy one. There can hardly be any differences on this. Dogs are obviously the best kind of pets…

Alexis

No, no, no…no they are not. I mean, dogs are fine, I don’t really have anything against dogs but cats are definitely the better pet. They do wonderful things like wake you by delicately clawing your eyelids at the crack of dawn. They curl up in your lap, and get sleepy, and relax and sometimes you can pet their tummies before they wake up and bite you. They purr, which really is the best thing. Most of all, though, they are the absolute best at boundaries. A cat will not let you do things that they don’t like. They will not just follow you. They will not let you make them wear cute little paper hats or a tiny scarf you’ve knitted for them even just for a minute so you can take a photo because how adorable! No: my cat is my hero – she is the smallest member of the household, but she doesn’t just go along with whatever the human majority thinks is the right thing to do.

Andy

Clawed eyelids? Biting? Each to their own, I suppose…

Well, speaking of what humanity or your cat thinks is the right thing to do, let’s go to something a bit more substantial. Ethics. How do you decide what is right?

Alexis

That is a question and a half! How many hours do I have to answer?

(I mean, I like this question, but just where to even start?)

There are so many approaches to this, and none of them quite works all the time.

Kant, of course, did think he had it figured out. Always act such that you could will that your action become a universal law - that was the secret to discovering what is right. However, this means no lying to the mob when they come for the person hiding in your attic, because you can’t will lying to be universally permissible.

Then the Utilitarians: whatever makes the most happiness, which sounds all right, unless you conclude – as some people seem to do – that there’s more happiness in a few enjoying many resources right now than in distributing those resources fairly – the utility monster problem.

I used to try very hard to follow Kant. I really wanted certainty about this and I ended up annoying my friends and harrowing up my own soul debating about where the universally true, right and correct for all time place to park in a car park was. Kant makes it very easy to lose the forest for the trees.

Nowadays, being a bit more comfortable with doubt, I suppose I don’t spend much time deciding what is right so much as trying to detect what Rightness is, and attempting to cultivate an inward disposition and affection towards it. I tend to follow Aristotle with this. Rather than trying to describe what the judgement criteria for Rightness or Goodness are, Aristotle thought of ethics in terms of one’s habits. Cultivate a virtuous self, and right action will follow – by their fruits will you know them, etc.

And Aristotle refused to say right out what virtues are. Instead, he put forth a process for finding them – the doctrine of the mean. Neither courage nor cowardice were virtues or defects in themselves, for instance, but only became so when they were wrong (disproportionate) responses to the situation at hand. I think the quote is “the right action taken by the right man for the right purpose at the right time in the right manner.” (He did mean man and not human, too.)

Of course Aristotle also said “call no man happy until he is dead, and even then do not be too certain”. He recognised that what is right is a slippery, fuzzy thing that changes depending on how it is seen – and happiness, similarly, could be seen to vanish even from the dead if their house, their descendants fell into disrepute, or some unsavoury secret came to light. It’s very much all about perspective.

Andy

Oh dear…I’ve been exposed to a variety of perspectives. When I learned about Kant, I thought he had a good idea. But then I learned about Utilitarianism and that seemed even better until someone pointed out the flaws there with individual actors deciding each case on their own leading to chaos, and then rule utilitarianism seemed like the thing. And then, ultimately, I feel like I go with my gut. And that’s probably pretty indicative of some of our differences.

And, of course, we work together and our perspectives on projects always show up quite different. You look for a detailed plan and I’m already jumping in. You’re mapping it out and taking it stepwise and for me it’s a compelling vision, poorly described, that’s drawing me forward, right?

And I worry that I may be better described as Scott Adams put it: “He was a dreamer, a thinker, a speculative philosopher... or, as his wife would have it, an idiot.”

Alexis

Of course, the other way of describing going with your gut is a kind of virtue theory, as Aristotle describes. This is true though about your working style – very true! – where you will turn up with an idea, and it’s usually a nice idea but then I want to know where did it come from, how is it going to work? Like, what specifically happens on a day to day basis, how is that going to work with GDPR, which outcomes are we going to measure and how – and where is it going?

And I think I make you worried, sometimes, that I’m going to strategically plan away the possibility of spontaneity or serendipity!

Andy

Sure. Just as I worry you that there’s no grounding and detail to the grand scheme!

Alexis

But I think this is what can work to make a very good plan. Just like social change often arises from some moderate speaking up interacting with wild radicalism – like the Suffragists and the Suffragettes – till both perspectives alight on common ground.

Andy

Well, there we agree, but only because we’ve come to learn about different ways of approaching things and how they each have their own very important and complementary strengths.

We come to things with very different perspectives. One thing we haven’t mentioned yet is the difference that comes from living lives in different genders.

I know that it has taken me a long time to begin to appreciate how different the experiences of women and men are and how much that impacts the way we see the world. While I’m not the bravest person, I know that I am relatively safe out on my own at night, especially with a 50kg dog with big sharp teeth walking by my side or straining at the lead! But I understand that this can be different for women. And the way women are viewed in the workplace is very different. And this is just the tip of the iceberg, isn’t it.

As I say, I can only begin to understand that difference in perspective.

Alexis

I mean, there’s bound to be a difference in perspective from that, isn’t there? For one thing, I’m pretty sure I feel more worried about getting pushback from what I say, and I’m always worried I’ll cause offence if I ever say anything that isn’t even and measured, or worse, that being anything other than rational and specific and provable in a court of law will turn me into “that crazy angry hysterical lady who’s just making stuff up for attention” – that last fate in particular is, I’m pretty sure, not one that you spend much time fearing.

But of course it’s not just the larger things like feeling safe at night…I think part of the reason I’ve been so willing to push GDPR through is that I know how much I worry about my personal information and the Internet because of a person in my past and their behaviour, which did have to do with me being a woman, and so I’m pretty willing to put up with the tedium of it and the complication and (understandable) pushback because I have a strong internalised understanding of why that kind of legislation is important, and how it can be lifesaving for some people, which is probably not the first thing most people think of when they think of data privacy law(!).

I know another way you experience the world very differently: I am such an introvert. If I don’t have enough time by myself, that’s the end of me. But you, on the other hand, thrive on being around people – what’s that like?

Andy

Well, yeah. That’s a huge one. It’s taken me a long time to appreciate that introverts are not just being deliberately difficult!

Yes, for me, being around people is like turning up the speed on an engine. My mind goes faster, my mood gets lighter, it’s all exciting and whirring and spinning. So, it’s almost like I’m in idle without other people - I can’t think as well alone as I can in conversation and being alone is depressing.

But it’s also like in an engine in that the fuel is not infinite. I can walk away from a high-energy conversation and soon start to feel really exhausted – so it’s not fuel in the tank that comes from being with people, but the RPM of the engine.

Alexis

I have such the opposite! If I’m around too many people, I cease to able to think. Let me walk around by myself, or sit quietly in a room for an hour, though, and I’ll come back with a completely planned idea!

I think that doing this – taking time to hear another’s perspective – makes it easier for everyone to be in the world, in all the different ways a person can be. Learning to take another person’s point of view seriously is another way of sharing out power, in the end: allowing people who aren’t like us to be who they are, and know what they know about the world instead of asking them to be smaller than they are or to live hidden under a lie because we can’t accept their truth is a step forward into what we aspire to be – a radically accepting community.

Andy

I’m really grateful to you and everyone that are willing to share their different perspectives with me. Although I might initially resist seeing the world through different lenses, it eventually makes me a better person. I think it makes all of humanity better and that’s something we need on this planet we share together.

Reading: from “Pale Blue Dot”, by Carl Sagan (adapted)

[Pale blue dot photo shown]

Look [...] at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there--on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.

Message, part 2 – by Rev. Andy Pakula

[Blue marble photo shown]

In 1972, the crew of the Apollo 17 were zooming through space headed for the moon. They turned their camera back to the earth and they captured an image best known as the “blue marble”. I was about to turn 15 years old at the time and my world was very small – limited almost entirely to the town I lived in and the areas around it. That plus a few holidays we went on to other parts of the United States.

For me and for millions of others, the blue marble represented a hugely different perspective. From the perspective of space, the world was small and seemingly vulnerable. From the perspective of space, our nations seemed close together. From the perspective of space, our global conflicts seemed like pointless spats between near neighbours who should be sharing and uniting in the face of the vastness beyond us.

Carl Sagan took us even further – to a new perspective where our earth was a barely visible dot in a section of space that itself is only a tiny speck in the wider universe. From this perspective, our conceit and self-importance would seem laughable were we not on the verge of snuffing out the life we hold to be so important.

Our world is not the vast and invulnerable place it appears as we stand here and look toward the horizon, but a delicate, fragile, lonely place where we must stand together or perish.

A change in perspective has the power to shift how we think and what we do.

Almost everything we think or feel depends on perspective. Many of us will have the experience of conflicting with our parents over different kinds of music. My mother hated the music I liked and it was a constant battle in our home about how loud it could be played, or if it could be heard at all.

And she loved opera. To my ears then, at best it sound phoney and artificial. At worst, I heard it as screeching and screaming. If she wanted me to go to my room she surely didn’t need to say anything – she could just put on one of those records and I’d be out of there before the soprano hit her high note.

It wasn’t that our ears were different or that the way we processed sound was different. It was a difference in perspective built by our experiences through life.

So much in life is this way. Even the things that trouble us and keep us awake at night depend on the perspective from which we see them. As Albert Einstein put it: “When you look at yourself from a universal standpoint, something inside always reminds or informs you that there are bigger and better things to worry about.” In the Buddhist tradition, all suffering is taught to be a consequence of our attitudes – of our perspectives. Change your perspective and change the way you see the world and your place in it. A change in perspective can transform anxiety and woe to equanimity and peace.

Most importantly, our perspective determines how we respond to each other. We’ve all heard the old saying that “You can't understand someone until you've walked a mile in their shoes.” Sometimes the age and overuse of a wise statement can make it lose its power. The truth is that – although we have more in common that what divides us – we do bring to this moment our very different experiences, and the very different perspectives that result.

I will never fully know what it’s like to be a cat lover, to have grown up in the American South, to be an introvert or to be a woman. It’s not possible. But until I do the work of learning what I can about different perspectives, I am condemned to fail to connect.

If I do not know how differently an introvert works compared to my extroverted ways, there will be misunderstanding and perhaps conflict.

If I do not understand that women may have vastly different experiences and perspectives of safety and bias and privilege, I cannot fully connect with them.

If I do not understand that people of colour are likely to have experienced prejudice and hostility far different from my own and begin to imagine what that is like, I can never relate deeply with them and form relationships of mutuality.

If I do not recognise that aggression or criminality arise from perspectives created by bigotry, violence, indifference, and exclusion, I cannot begin to have the compassion I need to understand.

This world, and we who depend on this blue marble in the vastness of space for our survival, need to make peace. We need to learn ways to live in greater mutuality. We need to see one another as kin, and all life as one great network of being.

It is only through striving for understanding and for compassion that we can begin to ease the conflict amongst us and to change the destructive ways that cause us to harm one another and our planet.

“Drifting here with my ship's companions

All we kindred pilgrim souls

Making our way by the lights of the heavens

In our beautiful blue boat home.”

Closing words

Take the chance to see the world through another’s eyes
It may confuse you
It may break your heart
But it may create a space for understanding
An opening for peace
A possibility of love
A foundation for justice