Have you ever noticed how two people can look at the same painting and see something completely different?
As human beings, we generally dislike uncertainty. At least, I know I do. All we want is one straight answer, preferably one that aligns with our beliefs. We ask ourselves day and night, who is right and who is wrong? All day, every day. When our world is a mess of polarized and conflicting opinions, it’s easy to be confused. Religion or science? Liberal or conservative? Climate change or climate crisis? It’s all a matter of perspective, and each person has one that is entirely unique to them.
The lens through which you observe the world is a culmination of everything you’ve seen and experienced from the time you were born until now.
Actions often speak louder than words, but language is far more powerful than we give it credit for. Yes, your lens has been shaped by the things that have happened to you, but more than that, it has been shaped by the ways in which you’ve been taught to view those experiences, by the words and phrases and stories you learned when you were young.
Embedded in the language of a culture are that society’s deepest held beliefs: words are wires that heighten our awareness of certain things and dampen our awareness of others. A culture that places importance on people over things will have words to describe the nuances of emotion that others have completely ignored. If you do not have a word for an emotion that describes the melancholy of saying goodbye to a loved one or the longing for something that might’ve been, you will be unaware such an emotion exists. The word in Portuguese is saudade. In your mind, however, you will merely be sad. You may never fully understand what it is to cherish a person with all your heart and be present for every moment you get to spend with them.
People are important, but it is easy for us to forget in the West. We are entangled in a world obsessed with wealth and capitalism, one enamoured with physical things. Measurables and metrics reign supreme. The goal in life is to be rich, right? But rich in what? Success is an outward thing, we say. The ends always justify the means.
I beg to differ.
Our actions have consequences we will never fully understand. The world is like a spider web of cause and effect; we are sewn into the fabric of time and one step can cause a ripple. The path we take is our thread, just one thread woven into a much larger picture.
Many Aboriginal cultures have words or stories to describe the interconnectedness of all living things. One such word exists in South Africa: ubuntu. Vaguely translated, it has been said to mean, “I am because we are.” While the origins of the word are unknown, it is a philosophy that runs through the blood of many communities across the continent, collecting a series of cherished values and pulling them into a single word we can grasp. It reminds us to take care in how we treat ourselves and others, for in harming another, we harm ourselves – and vice versa.
Ubuntu says we cannot exist in isolation from one another, as much as we try. It says, “your pain is my pain, so let me help you heal.” It says if this is true, the focus, then, should not be placed on the individual, but on the community. How do your actions effect the world around you?
There is something universal about the human experience. I have not lived the life you’ve lived, but there are things we share in common that can help us relate to one another. I have not endured your struggles or felt your grief; I have not known your joys or the answers that brought you relief. But I do have my own story with its own highs and lows, one that gives me a base of knowledge and understanding if I choose to use it as such.
I know what it is to have loved and then lost that love at the moment you least expect. I know what it is to cry for so long there are no more tears left. I know what is to find out you were wrong, to fear rejection so deeply you change how you are and say things you regret. I know what it is to sit with your heart in your throat, to feel it pound in your chest harder than you thought possible as your palms fill with sweat.
I know all these things, but I also know what it is to find happiness in the little moments that make life great. I know the sweet taste of a gentle kiss, and the smell of the earth after it rains. I know what it is to dance when no one is watching or sing so loud everyone can hear and still not care. I’ve seen the first stars appear as the sun sets over a far-off horizon. I’ve felt sand between my toes and grass under my bare feet and the joy of being truly in the moment, even just for one moment… I have lived.
The experiences I have accumulated may not look anything like yours; I may not speak your language and we may never take note of the same things. But that does not mean my experience is any less valuable than yours. It does not mean I can’t look at the tears in your eyes and say, I’ve been there. I’ve felt pain, too. I understand. It does not mean I can’t see your joy and celebrate with you, that I can’t be grateful you’ve received such a gift. It does not mean I can’t sit with you in the tension of unknown spaces or hold your gaze when I see you on the street. We are all connected in ways we cannot understand, and that is beautiful.
Some things in life are meant to be left, not questioned. Sometimes that’s just the way it is, and sometimes that’s enough
Other times, it’s okay to question things. Sometimes there are things that need to be questioned. There are rebels in every generation, and change is necessary if we wish to move forward as a human race. But the things they choose to question and the ways in which they ask are of utmost importance. It is the difference between initiating a non-violent revolution and starting a senseless riot. One seeks a solution to a problem, while the other is simply looking to cause a disruption.
Always remember this: the way you ask the question will guide the answer you get. If you only look for problems, you will find all the things that are wrong this world and you will affirm your belief that life is bad. If you ask yourself what went wrong in your day, you will find everything that went wrong. On the contrary, if you ask someone three things they are grateful for at that moment, they will undoubtedly be able to answer you. In fact, if they allow for it, that list will continue to grow. It is called the confirmation bias – you will always be able to find more of what you look for in life. Focus on the problems and you will get more problems. Seek out solutions and you will be surprised how quickly they show up knocking on your door.
When I look at my life among the diversity of our world, I see the things we all share in common – I make connections. My brain has always been wired this way. If it’s all about perspective, what do you choose to see? Do you look with judgement or curiosity?
It is easy to misunderstand another if you never take the time to listen. I listen to others because people are worth it. I see you – do you see me?