Perspective alters reality
I’m embarrassed to admit that when I wrote my book Daddy Issues, I’d never heard of the movie Rashomon, even though I play around a lot with perspective in my story. Clearly this classic movie has seeped enough into our culture that I’d been influenced by it unconsciously (or maybe it was this Star Trek episode that taught it to me).
A Rashomon Style story is where the same event is recounted by several characters. The stories [may] differ in ways that are impossible to reconcile. It shows that two or more people can view the same event quite differently. The author invites the audience to hear them all out and then compare and contrast these divergent points of view. Sometimes the work provides no definitive answer as to what actually happened. (from tvtropes.org)
I did finally watch the movie when a reader told me my story reminded her of it. And I found I had a philosophical difference with what it seemed to be saying. The perspectives in the movie are impossible to reconcile. Someone has to be lying or wrong for the story to make sense. But for me, that’s not the way life works. Usually, something takes place where several people have experienced the same events, but have widely different views of what actually happened and why. People aren’t trying to lie and they’re not straight up wrong, they just have different perspectives.
The thing is, we believe in the reality our perspective has given us. To us, it’s not just perspective, but the facts as we experienced them. If I see things from a liberal-leaning point of view and my uncle sees only from a conservative-leaning point of view, we can look at, say, a gay couple getting married and have two completely different reactions. And, this could set off one helluva an argument.
What I’m becoming more convinced of over time is that there is no one “right” perspective. There is no objective fact out there. Even with things like the sun going around the earth, I only know what I’m told. The science makes sense to me, so I believe what I was taught in grade school. But do I myself know for a fact, in a way that I’ve observed and measured, that the sun is not going around the earth? Nope. To me, it looks like it’s coming up on one horizon and going down on the other. I have to use my ability to conceptualize abstraction to believe that I’m actually on a rotating planet instead.
So when I try to understand another’s point of view, I also have to employ that ability to conceptualize abstraction. I have to be able to put myself in their shoes. What makes my uncle the way he is? What is he trying to protect, what is it that frightens him? In that way, I can learn to respect his conclusions without necessarily agreeing with him. And maybe I can tell him a little of my life experience so he can learn from me as well. Will I ever be in someone else’s shoes? No, I can never walk the walk of life that another has walked. Even if I could for a day, I never could walk through their entire life, bringing myself to the same spot they are today. So it’s not up to me to correct them or judge them.
The first time I realized this was with a much older person, someone who was very successful in a field I wanted to pursue. He’d achieved wealth and status, and had just earned a prestigious award. He also happened to be the same religion as I was. We got to talking about some theological points, and sure enough, he had different views than the ones I’d been taught. Up until then, I’d been very dogmatic in my religious life, certain I knew right from wrong and black from white. But faced with this man’s conclusions from his own experience, I remember thinking for the first time, “Who am I to question the conclusions he’s come to in his life? His perspective is as valid as mine.” That was my first step away from dogmatism and into a more open-minded view of religion, even of God.
I try (it’s not always easy!) to keep this in mind when hearing things that jar my sensibilities. I try to remember it’s my perspective that’s being jarred, and maybe I can still learn something.