First, a quote. This is from an anonymous reddit user whose beautiful words have made their way around the internet. He or she actually employed this quote as a defense of the purpose of literature, but the first two paragraphs greatly serve our purposes here. The whole thing is good, but what’s most important to us is the way this person describes the limits of such a small, singular perspective. Here we go.
“The universe is huge. Time is impossibly vast. Trillions of creatures crawl and swim and fly through our planet. Billions of people live, billions came before us, and billions will come after. We cannot count, cannot even properly imagine, the number of perspectives and variety of experiences offered by existence.
We sip all of this richness through the very narrowest of straws: one lifetime, one consciousness, one perspective, one set of experiences. Of all the universe has, has had, and will have to offer, we can know only the tiniest fraction. We are alone and minuscule and our lives are over in a blink.”
What I want to look at is that narrow straw. See the straw. Be the straw. Oh wait, you are already? Great.
If we take the pantheon of applicable experience, say like, every living creature that has lived on the planet and experienced something since the planet formed, you can say they each had a perspective, right? Cool. Now, for pragmatic purposes, let’s shrink that sample size to every person ever. Every human that has ever lived. Each one has had his or her own individual perspective on reality, on the universe, on the purpose or meaning of life, etc. etc. etc. Some are similar, sure, but every one is unique. We could also say they each have their own story, but let’s save that for another post. (Read: the rest of the quote above.) So here, so I don't go into some superfluous diatribe, let’s focus on the idea of each person having a unique perspective.
Well, what are the things that make up that unique perspective? There are plenty of lists out there that explore this question, but many of those lists frame the conversation in terms of identity. This is important: your identity, in a way, creates your perspective. For example, an ultra-simplified description of my perspective might read something like this: white male, mid-thirties, writer, educator, gamer, rocker. Sounds like a police description of me crossed with a bad dating profile.
The next step, then, is to understand that those identity traits actually compose my perspective, my narrow straw my individual, unique way of experiencing the natural phenomena of the universe. That phenomena might be biological, natural, interpersonal, or sociological, but whatever it is, you experience it uniquely, through your own unique straw, from your own unique location in space and time. Pure, immutable uniqueness. That’s pretty cool, right?
Again, this is different from agreeing about a movie or political point or paint color. No two people can truly see the exact same shade of red. Of course we say or think we do for practical purposes, but if you want to be totally honest, AND you want to then think of all the other uncountable phenomena AND ways to experience it, well, you're back to induplicable uniqueness again.
So let’s talk about what some of the aspects of perspective are. We already said our standard identity markers, like age, gender, and race. Worth noting here that many phenomena that people experience by virtue of interactions at school or work, events in the news, or social structures are experienced differently by a ten-year old or a thirty-year-old or a sixty-year-old, by a man or a woman or a transgender individual, or by a black person or brown person or white person or native person or eastern Asian person or central Asian person or Middle Eastern person or or or or...whew. Even our words for this identity stuff can get complicated.
I'm well aware that there are libraries worth of political considerations and anthropological implications and stand-up comedy jokes in that last paragraph, but I’m going to steer clear of those here. I want to stay focused on perspective. Is your straw still pointing at perspective? Good.
Some other aspects of our perspective are not often considered. Our biology: the shape and movement and ability of our bodies, the induplicable fingerprints that are our sensory organs, the number of neurons we have firing at any given moment. Our history: our individual history, but also our placement on the timeline of human history, or the history of our nation, region, city, or family. Our political leanings shape our perspective, our religion, our education, our income, our class, our culture, our politics, our conditioning, our expectations for how people should act and how well we believe we should hold ourselves to those standards or even how well we actually can. All of these do not just affect, but actually create, the ways we see the world because they are the shape of the straw, and they are the filters and lenses we put on the straw.
Then there are even tricks and pitfalls to managing your straw. Observation bias means that something changes when you are observing it. Does the teacher think that the students are all that well behaved when he leaves the room? Nope. Or how about confirmation bias, where you see what you want to see. The fridge might be full of vegetables, but it looks empty to me. Or how about language bias, where your language shapes what you can and can't understand, or as Wittgenstein famously put it, "The limits of my language are the limits of my world." Some native peoples have far more words for "snow" than you find in English. I'd wager, with more linguistic tools for it in their toolbox, they understand the stuff better. And don't even think this is an exhaustive list of biases. Don't let your bias think I'm telling you everything.
Author, skeptic, and proud miscreant Robert Anton Wilson refers to the unique perspective straw as one’s “reality tunnel.” And once you learn or understand that you have a reality tunnel, it’s a difficult idea to unlearn.
Of course you should. Duh.
The cool thing is you can add channels here or there, or at least clarify the reception on some of them. How’s that? You know plenty of ways already. Reading, especially literature, or about people vastly different from you. Other media works. Travel. Talk to people. Imagine what other people’s lives are like. Even (maybe especially) if it’s uncomfortable. Explore a new culture or group. Give people the benefit of the doubt. Assume they’re good. Ask them what they think. Practice empathy. Just be open.
And appreciate your straw. It’s awesome, isn’t it? It's your life. It's you're identity. You’re awesome. No? Of course you are. Don't tell me you have a kink you need to work out of your tunnel. Every moment can alter your tunnel in some way, so protect it. It’s yours to take care of. You’re the only one who has it. Stretch it out. Work it out. Test out new lenses, but remember to give them a good polish from time to time. I imagine you want to see as clearly as possible. It's breathtaking when the light catches it just right.