Posts Tagged ‘perspective’

I was approached by a few people who read my last blog post and were concerned that bad things had happened to me on my vacation.

On the contrary, friends. On the contrary. I had an amazing trip.

The plan was as follows: to begin in East London at WorldCon, to move to central London to enjoy a week of blissful London time, and then to end with a few days in southeast Wales. This turned out to be an excellent plan.

I had an emotionally challenging summer. Any time your best inspirational words are “things get worse before they get better,” you know things aren’t going so great at that particular moment, however optimistic you may feel about the future. My hope was that my vacation would give me a chance to clear my head, gain perspective, and get some emotional rest. And it certainly succeeded at giving me all these things.

For me, travel, whether it is recreational or to a convention or a combination of both, takes me outside of my familiar, everyday world. I see people I normally wouldn’t see, I have conversations I normally wouldn’t have, I learn about things I wouldn’t normally learn about, I spend my time differently. Not only does this refill the creative wells, but it also serves in a larger sense as a reminder of what is possible.

I think this is always valuable, but when you are having a difficult time, it becomes even more so because it shows you potential ways forward. It encourages movement instead of paralysis. It encourages analysis with an eye toward positive change instead of hopelessness. It gives new context to old problems.

It allows space to imagine a better world. Or at least a healthier life.

Why is this important? Because you can’t move closer to that life unless you can see enough to know what direction to take. It’s difficult to make choices based on your priorities until you are very clear on what those priorities are. And sometimes they need to be reaffirmed several times before they become truly internalized.

The other helpful ingredient for imagining a healthier life is hope. And WorldCon delivered big time on this one. I cried at the Hugo ceremony. Okay, I always cry at the Hugo ceremony, but this time was different. Kameron Hurley and her double win for Fan Writer and for her brilliant essay “We Have Always Fought” meant a lot to me. This recognition from my community for such important work gave me hope. The respect and support of my colleagues gave me hope. The steps forward I had been making in recent months, however difficult, began to give me hope too.

So yes, it was a wonderful vacation indeed. And I’m looking forward to what’s coming next.

At the Hugos.

At the Hugos.

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Sometimes we experience this humbling moment: when we receive a different perspective on a problem that has been plaguing us and realize how grateful we are to have the problem at all.


Another humbling moment: when we remember how temporary this moment is, and how fleeting a lifetime.


And so we carry on doing the best we can. We celebrate graduations and anniversaries and birthdays. We spend time with the people we care about. We bury our feet deep into the sand, and we allow the surf to wash over us. We take the moments as they come.

Photo Credit: paul bica via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: paul bica via Compfight cc

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Thank goodness for Jonathan Carroll and his Facebook page, because whenever my brain is feeling slow, I take a look at what he has posted recently to get my thoughts flowing again. Recently he shared this quotation:

People will kill you over time, and how they’ll kill you is with tiny, harmless phrases, like “be realistic.” – Dylan Moran

This makes me think about how subtle an influence a person can have on us. So subtle, in fact, that often no one in the room is conscious of what’s happening. A comment here, a snort there, and a little body language thrown in for good measure, and our thoughts and emotions can be deeply affected:

“I’m not good enough.”

“Maybe I’m being stupid.”

“My career/life goals aren’t important/valid/valuable.”

It’s so easy to diminish, to de-motivate, to plant the seeds of doubt, to make someone feel lesser. It’s so easy to neglect to listen to what other people have to say in favor of listening to ourselves. It’s so easy to sting someone without even thinking about what we are saying.

As a writer, I believe that words matter, perhaps more than most. The written word matters, and the spoken word matters. Body language, tone of voice, and mannerisms matter, all contributing to the overall message that someone is communicating.

Because I think words matter, I pay a lot of attention. I listen. I think about what people say to me. I think not only about the words used, but about the manner of their delivery, the context, and other circumstances that are relevant.

For many years, I internally chided myself for my “sensitivity.” But now I recognize what a gift it can be. Because if I’m paying attention, then I can notice more of those small messages, many of them negative, that I receive from other people. And then I can work to counter them and lessen their impact.

Words matter. (Photo Credit: felipe_gabaldon via Compfight cc)

That’s why choosing carefully the people with whom we spend a lot of time is so important. Not only will they be affecting the activities we participate in, the subjects we talk about, and even the amount of food we eat, but they will be sending subtle unconscious messages that have a real impact (potentially either positive or negative) on our moods, our world views, our self esteem, and what we think is possible for ourselves. The more we notice, the more we can make deliberate decisions about whether to spend time with people who make us feel awesome, energized, and supported for being who we are, or whether to spend time with people who make us feel tired, drained, ignored, and not enough. The choice is clear, but only if we are able to track what’s going on.

Words matter. Our environment matters. The choice to be kind matters.

What tiny, harmless phrase have you taken to heart lately? What would you rather hear?

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Today I have a story to tell you that takes place in India. Now, I’ve never been to India, partially because I tend to avoid places where catching malaria is an option and partially because of the stories my friends have told me. But happily, I have friends through whom I can live vicariously. And their stories, besides being amusing, serve to provide me with a healthy dose of perspective.

Now imagine, if you will, a thriving Indian town up in the Himalayas. It’s so hot and dusty that the shopkeepers throw cups of water on the dirt in front of their stores so there will be less dust. My friend was wandering in the middle of town when she suddenly felt violently ill (something that happens frequently to Westerners in India, from all accounts).

My friend had a dilemma. Her lodgings were on the outskirts of town, and there was no way she was going to get there in time. But there weren’t any public bathrooms for her to use either. So she began to scout out a likely location on the public streets to take care of business. She found a likely alcove guarded by a cow, so she squatted down there and was very sick. She told me the cow stared at her the entire time, and what was particularly amusing to her was that she was creating a cow patty of her own.

And then she realized she didn’t have any toilet paper.

Photo Credit: Mikelo via Compfight cc

My friend went back to her lodgings and told her partner what had happened. He said, “You think that’s bad? Listen what happened to me.” He proceeded to tell her a story of how he was sick during a ten-hour bus ride in India. The bus wouldn’t stop, so he was sick in his pants every two hours for the entire trip.

I don’t believe in problem comparing, but I do think these stories help us calibrate our perceptions of the world and gain a different perspective on our lives. They illustrate the twin truths that there is always someone who has it worse and that, even so, sometimes that doesn’t matter very much. Was being sick for ten hours on a bus worse than being sick out on the public street? Perhaps, and yet at a certain level, suffering is suffering.

These stories also make me feel extremely grateful for the comforts I enjoy. It’s so easy to take the things to which we are accustomed for granted, whether that be available restrooms, toilet paper, or food and water that doesn’t make us constantly ill. I’m glad I live somewhere clean with so much modern infrastructure. I’m glad I have hot water more than a few hours a day.

Finally, they highlight our lack of control over life. Sometimes things go wrong and we have to cope with it the best we can. And sometimes that means hiding in an alcove with a curious cow.

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I’ll let you in on a little secret. We who carry with us the legacy of a troubled childhood sometimes talk about the people who don’t. You know, the ones who had fairly normal childhoods with just a sprinkling of trauma and have gone on to become well-adjusted adults without years of therapy or going on a spiritual quest in India or having a near-death experience.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot because I think we attract and are attracted by people who have similar world views to our own. And we are also heavily influenced by the five people we spend the most time with (or three, or ten, but you get the idea). So I have a lot of investment in the idea of spending time with emotionally healthy people, including those who had pretty happy childhoods.

But I’ve noticed a theme in recent conversations about these people. Words like “boring” and “not very deep” tend to come up. And when I pushed a little harder, a friend said, “What I really want is someone who will understand. And people who are happy and healthy won’t be able to understand.”

We get so excited when we find someone who “understands,” and we look with eagerness for our commonalities. “Wow, you’re a Disneyland person? I’m a Disneyland person too!” or “Your favorite book is my favorite book!” or “We both know this obscure fact about this obscure interest!” And abracadabra, instant bonding. We do the same thing with tragedy. There is no time when people will be more likely to share stories of everyone they’ve known who has ever died than when you are grieving yourself.

But I question the whole idea of understanding. Can anyone else ever truly understand what it is to be me, and what it means to have my experiences? We can build up models of each other, sure, and keep adding details for ever-increasing accuracy, but even then we are not understanding so much as empathizing. We can use our imaginations to put ourselves into someone else’s shoes, but we can never truly know what those shoes feel like.

We see this in good writing. It’s why choosing the point of view character(s) is so critical. The story completely changes based on who is telling it, even if most of the events and even scenes are the same. I see this when I talk to my sister. We both lived through many of the same formative events, and yet today when we talk about it, it’s vividly clear that we had completely different experiences. The details we remember are different, and our impressions of each other from that time are often inaccurate. We think we understand, and yet sometimes that false impression has actually kept us farther apart.

Photo Credit: Ma Gali via Compfight cc

Understanding is overrated. What I’m interested in and what I want for myself is empathy. And empathy, and the personal depth and wisdom that having empathy requires, can be given regardless of childhood experience. The whole point of empathy is the cognizance that you can’t completely understand, even if you’ve had similar experiences; that you aren’t the other person and the whole sum of past and present, personality and passions, fears and flaws that makes them who they are. And in spite of that, in spite of the impossibility of understanding, you’re willing to sit with them and listen to them and try to hold as much as them as possible in your mind so you can see who they are, even though it’s sometimes so hard to leave yourself out of that picture. And yet somehow, even though it sounds hard and complicated, many of us are surprisingly good at being empathetic.

I don’t understand you, not really. And you don’t understand me. We come from different places, and we live in different worlds. But we can still find a way to know each other.

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Today I am away from home, attending the Rainforest Writer’s Retreat in Washington. Ah, the bliss of days on end in which I have no obligations except those of basic upkeep and writing, writing, writing! After which I get to converse with other writers to my heart’s content.

In other news, my husband and I are currently reading my old favorite The Phantom Tolbooth, by Norton Juster, at bedtime. This book is full of gems of word play and absurdity, as well as surprisingly profound insights on the nature of the world. Here is one of my favorite passages:

“…from here that looks like a bucket of water,” he said, pointing to a bucket of water; “but from an ant’s point of view it’s a vast ocean, from an elephant’s just a cool drink, and to a fish, of course, it’s home. So, you see, the way you see things depends a great deal on where you look at them from.

This passage struck me strongly when I read it as a child, and every time I re-read it, I am reminded again of what an important insight it really is. So much of the world depends on your point of view, doesn’t it? Not only does this help me keep perspective on my own life and problems, but it’s also helpful when trying to understand other people. We all see things in our own special way, and it continues to amaze me how very different those ways can be.

When one stops to consider how mutable memory is, this train of thought gets even more interesting. Let’s say I attend a small event with three other people. Each of us will perceive the event from our own perspective to begin with. So maybe Person A is really happy because she got good news earlier today and has been really looking forward to this event. Person B is trying to be chipper but is experiencing some RSI pain in his arms and shoulders. Person C is deeply annoyed because he wanted to go to Japanese food but the group consensus was for Italian and now he’s worrying about eating too many carbs. And Person D worked really hard today and is having trouble transitioning from work mode to social mode.

Already we can expect that each person will experience the evening differently. But then ask them all about it three months later, and the stories will be even more different. Each person will have personal details they remember and others they forget. Some of them will misremember. And if they’re remembering together, one them may say, erroneously as it happens, “Didn’t Person B order gnocchi?” and then another will say, “Oh, that’s right” and in such a way the erroneous memory will spread. Each person’s perspective will shift depending on what they remember.

Norton Juster got it right. It all depends on your point of view, and many more things are subjective than we might at first realize. I often think about that bucket of water and remember that today, I might be the elephant and you might be the fish.

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