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Shifting perspectives, excerpts

Shifting perspectives

“Hell is Other People” pp.3-4

The present book may be likened to a Zen anecdote: the real problem lies not in your life, but in the way you perceive it. Just change your point of view. Of course, that is much easier said than done, for the majority of our troubles stem from the fact that we have not yet learned to accurately assess and gauge our circumstances and acquaintances, nor are we able to properly evaluate the string of actions, words, and thoughts by which we are linked to them. Indeed, oftentimes we are not even aware that we have a specific outlook on a given subject. For most of us, looking at things objectively – for a progress report, so to speak – constitutes an exceptional instance rather than a continual mindset, and therein lies the crux of the problem. Shifting our perspective, then, requires us to find the correct distance for evaluation; it is almost a matter of finding the proper focus, as in photography. And like anything else, this skill can be learned and honed with practice.

But first, why should we even try to change our outlook or perspective? This question takes on particular importance in the context of our interactions with other people. Many interpersonal obstacles and instances of irritation, lethargy, rancor, and dejection originate in the simple fact that some person or group does not treat us as well as we had expected. As a behavioral explanation, it hardly matter whether we decide to dislike someone because of the way he or she treats us, or whether that person took a dislike to us first. In each instance, the general principle remains the same: spurred on by the presence of so many spiteful intentions and objectively harmful actions, we allow ourselves to be overtaken by a downward spiral of gloomy thoughts, bad moods, and counterattacks, whether latent or overt, to the point of allowing this self-sustaining cycle to take such hold within us that it wholly obstructs our relations with others.

[…]

“A Benevolent and Accurate Vision” pp.55-57

How can we coordinate and reconcile the apparently divergent dimensions of agathism so as to concurrently perceive matters in both a benevolent and accurate light? [1]

It could be said that an accurate perception of matters is in fact a prerequisite for a benevolent outlook, for we must first become adept at reframing a problem by striving to attain a correct, objective, and neutral view of events, free from prejudice and preconceptions. To discern the positive aspect of a given situation, we first gauge its genuine advantages and disadvantages, as well as the true nature and goals of the people with whom we are dealing. In so doing, it is important to avoid self-delusion and to refrain from exclusively and obsessively clinging to one particular aspect or another. For instance, by becoming wholly aware of the full implications of a certain job, we might decide that not being hired (or even being fired) would not be so tragic after all; in some ways, these might even be fortunate outcomes.

In a different sense, perceiving matters benevolently seems to be a corollary – both a prerequisite and a complement – of perceiving matters accurately. Indeed, we can envision events more accurately by striving to perceive the positive aspect of a given circumstance, the aspect that makes it beneficial in some way, which helps us to acquire a more precise grasp of where our true advantage lies. By perceiving what is good about having to search for a new job, for example, we may be brought to reappraise the benefits we had identified with our former job, and thereby reassess our abilities, prospects, and desired lifestyle with greater accuracy. Moreover, hardships or apparent setbacks can sometimes prove to be an occasion for building character, while simultaneously increasing our compassion and empathy for other people’s troubles and misfortunes.

While this academic example allows us to glimpse some vital aspects of the efforts involved in practicing agathism, analyzing a few practical experiences will reveal that such an outlook can take us even further. But before continuing, it is important to forestall a common criticism often raised in this regard. Although agathism is a virtue that may seem easy to accomplish in the context of innocuous events (despite the fact that experience has shown otherwise), things are quite different when we are confronted with more complex problems, like the death of a friend or the birth of a newborn with congenital defects. In these contexts, agathism may seem to be an unattainably valiant stance, one that may even seem pathological or in some ways akin to indifference or insensitivity. Consider, for instance, the social philosopher who overcomes illness or a loved one’s demise by seeing them merely as incidental episodes in the greater flow of events, or as an opportunity to test the strength of his resolve and discernment. We can also recall the poem that Malherbe sent to a friend who had lost his daughter, “Consolation to Monsieur Du Périer, Gentleman of Aix-en-Provence, on the Death of his Daughter”:

Your pain, Du Périer, will therefore be eternal
And somber orations
Which remind you of paternal affection
Will forever increase!

Yet another example can be found in the verses of the 10th century Persian poet Rudaki:

O ye who are grieved for a just cause
Ye who endlessly weep secret tears
What is no more is no more; what happened had to be
What was is past; why persist in bemoaning it?
Do you seek to smooth out the course of the world?
The world! Have we ever been able to bend it to our will?
Go on, weep until the end of time if you so desire.
Have we ever seen tears bring back what exists no more?
In the most arduous ordeals are displayed
Power, dignity, and grandeur.


[1] Using slightly different terminology, this double alignment is discussed by Dr. Elahi in The Path of Perfection (Viriginia: Paraview, 2005): “Realism refers to seeing things as they really are and observing events the way they have actually happened, without falling into the abyss of naïve optimism or misplaced pessimism. The complement to realism is positive-seeing, which means paying attention to and seeing the positive aspect of each thing or event; this sense is one of the factors that prevent bitterness in life.”


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