I was sitting on a bench under a tree at an amusement park, reeling from a roller-coaster-induced bout of motion-sickness. I was near the entrance to a section of the park called Pioneer Village, where there were antique structures, cars, and other historical landmarks and displays from some of the original settlers of the area. Earlier, I had walked through Pioneer Village and thoroughly enjoyed reading the stories and pondering the lives of those who came before, those who had the strength to convert the harsh wilds into a habitable civilization.
There was a man, about my age, standing with his kids by my bench. The kids kept offering suggestions on what ride to go on next, and finally, one piped up, “Well there’s Pioneer Village, Daddy! Let’s go there, I want to see it!” The man guffawed and snorted, “No way! You mean ‘Retard Village’? That’s just a bunch of boring crap. You don’t want to go to Retard Village.”
This exchange made me incredibly sad. Sad that he thought that way, sad at his language, sad that he was passing that attitude to his children, sad that many people feel the same as he does—that history is boring and irrelevant.
Over my life, I have gradually developed a fierce love of history, and reading and learning about other people and times has helped me to see my own life through a much more diverse lens. When I learn about the women of the French resistance suffering the horrors of the death camps together; or of the mass starvation that occurred in North Korea; or the terrors of Mao’s revolution; or the slaughtering of innocent civilians that happened during the chaos of the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars; or the brutality against slaves in early America; or the disease and fight for survival endured by early pioneers and settlers; or of the insufferable conditions that WWI soldiers endured in the trenches; it really puts my own life and trials into more perspective.
So let me talk about perspective a bit.
Our generation enjoys privileges and comforts that are literally unknown in the history of humankind. We do have trials, but we sometimes elevate mere trivialities and exaggerate them into things that are much larger than they are or need be in the scope of history.
Yes, I know that our lives have valid hardships too, and our trials represent real struggles that are not to be belittled. I know that our generation requires other talents and endurance than previous ones. And I fully believe we are all here for a reason; that here and now, we are fighting battles that need to be fought. I don’t want to trivialize either the suffering of those who have gone before, or the suffering that we are going through right now by making direct comparisons between our lives and theirs. However, what I do know is that in learning of the past, it has changed me. It has made a profound impact on the way I look at my own life.
We often focus on petty things, when in reality, we have it better than most of the human population, EVER. We have lost perspective. In America today, most of our problems are, in perspective, luxuries.
We have the luxury of calling in sick to work, of nursing grievances, of complaining about how we don’t feel we fit into whatever circumstances life has given us. We have the luxury of party politics, of petty fights, of back-biting and jealousy and divisive behavior. We have the luxury of sticking our noses up at food unless it fits what ever current trendy health fad we’ve jumped on at the time. We have the luxury of a minimum-wage paycheck. We have the luxury of immunizations, homeless shelters, shopping centers, grocery stores, home ownership, health insurance, identity theft protection and home security systems. We have the luxury of complaining about slow service in fast-food lines, no registers being open at the store, annoying drivers, broken air-conditioners, offensive Facebook posts, and slow elevators. We have the luxury of complaining that a historical site at an amusement park is boring. Yes, all luxuries. All that many others throughout history never had the privilege of even being able to worry about.
If you look at psychology and educational theory, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs seeks to explain human motivation. It is a pyramid, and the theory is that you cannot be motivated by anything above you on the pyramid until your needs at the current level are met. For example, if you are starving to death, your basic survival needs are not being met, and hence, you do not spend energy agonizing over how many likes you got on your last Facebook post. If you live in an abusive home where you constantly feel unsafe, pursuing your latest bucket-list hobby becomes less important.
To demonstrate this pyramid in action, I am reminded of an evening my family spent with a man from Iraq soon after America’s declaration of war on terror following 9/11. He was an engineer visiting America to study our water systems and was attempting to learn how to bring water to greater numbers of people in his country. We went to dinner with him, and listening to him talk was another dose of healthy perspective. He said several things I remember to this day. The first was that he thought we were crazy to just let him into our country and water facilities with minimal security or concerns. He could, he said, at any moment, sabotage or poison the water systems; he felt Americans were too soft and were putting political correctness and a fear of offending above safety. Agree with him or not, that was his perspective, and it was interesting. Secondly, he said that in his country he had to take great pains to hide his occupation; if local groups found out he was attempting to rebuild his nation, his life would be in danger. They were not interested in rebuilding, just in destroying and blaming other groups for the destruction.
The third thing he said that was very profound for me was that he was astounded at how here in America we just walk around, not fearing for our lives. We go to the grocery store. We walk around on the streets. Our children ride bikes and play in neighborhoods. We go out to restaurants and parks. And for the most part, none of us were worried we’d be gunned down or kidnapped or be collateral damage in a roadside or suicide bomb. He said his mother was too afraid to leave the house to get food most of the time. He said that we were clueless about the luxury of our existence.
Perspective. Where he was from, existence was focused so much on safety that they weren’t really concerned about whether they are wearing the latest fashions or whether they chose the most flattering filter on their Instagram shot that morning.
Our society as a whole is generally in the top three levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy. And unfortunately, it is here that we begin to lose a bit of perspective. We are often in those upper tiers at the cost of what truly brings profound happiness—keeping perspective about our blessed and gifted spot in the history of the world.
A total and complete lack of perspective has created millions of self-obsessed and entitled children who go to outrageous lengths to show their parents they shouldn’t ever be disciplined.
Indeed, a total and complete lack of perspective is what led to our selfie-culture, to image-crafting on social media and to new mental disorders springing up from our self-obsessed society.
A total and complete lack of perspective is what is leading to stay-at-home-mothers demanding they receive a salary.
A total and complete lack of perspective is what allows Roseanne Barr to declare that anyone who doesn’t agree with her beliefs or is too wealthy should be guillotined or rounded up and sent to re-education camps. (Interesting historical fact to give you perspective: Ravensburg, a horrific death camp during WWII, started out as a “re-education camp”.)
A total and complete lack of perspective is what leads to us declare that people who have lived better than most people ever have to be in poverty because they don’t have cell phones.
A total and complete lack of perspective is what leads Martin Bashir to declare that Sarah Palin should be whipped, and then urinated and defecated on, all because she apparently committed the horrible sin of differing in opinion from his own worldview.
A total and complete lack of perspective is what leads to the death threats surrounding a person’s supposedly hateful personal business choices, when in other parts of the world, hate is shown in much more stark and frightening terms.
A total and complete lack of perspective is what leads to Amazon and other companies banning the sale of Confederate flags (as is their right to do) while leaving Che Guevara, Stalin, and Nazi idolizing products in their line-up (again, as is their right to do). Given that the latter have led to tens of millions of deaths throughout history, it seems lacking in perspective at best and completely hypocritical at worst to leave these items while pulling flags. Or, perhaps the lack of perspective remains in the American public, who gets swept away on the tunnel vision of the tides of popular culture, and companies just go with the flow.
A total and complete lack of perspective is what leads to adults fixating on the perceived slights by others, taking offense at every little thing, declaring war on friends and neighbors, drawing battle lines over incredibly trivial things.
A total and complete lack of perspective is what allows Sandra Fluke to say that she would rather be a Nigerian woman, kidnapped, raped, and sold as a sex slave, than to ever even be “touched” by someone who isn’t in her political party.
A total and complete lack of perspective is what contributes to our victim culture; people claiming they are victims if they are not handled with kid-gloves and given ease and comfort and coddling, professionally and in their homes; claiming they are victims if someone says something to them the wrong way or isn’t sensitive to them in the way that they need it.
What will we do when our society has a reality check? We are due for one. And probably sooner rather than later. What history has taught me is that when crisis occurs, in order to survive, we have to be able to overcome our vast and overwhelming differences and unite together. When history hands society a turn for the worse, many of the things that people used to fixate on, that used to divide them, all of a sudden don’t matter as much as they thought they did. The differences that divide us are far less consequential than what must unite us.
So, here’s the question: why do human beings wait for disaster to unite? Why do we have to be driven to our knees before we are grateful? Why do we put those blinders on to our blessed lives and instead focus on all of the negatives? Why do we spend our precious little time here on this earth being petty and cruel and divisive and judgmental and whiny and ungrateful? Why do we waste opportunities to see our lives for the miracles they are and our fellow humans on this journey as our fellow companions in life?
Let’s change our perspective a bit, shall we? The next time you see that neighbor whose dog keeps you up at night barking, instead of making a snarky comment or shunning them, or complaining about them on Facebook, how about you go over and say hello and be their friend? After all, they could be the one person you rely on for strength if things were to go south. The next time someone does something that you could possibly interpret as offensive, instead of being offended and then spreading nasty rumors about them and being insulted for years, why don’t you give them the benefit of the doubt, shrug it off, smile at them, and remember that we are all in this together? That person could be the one who offers you the redeeming crust of bread in the end.
Look at everyone as a fellow survivor. Look at everyone as a friend to link elbows with and fight for life with. See everything through the lens of wonder and awe and profound appreciation for its place in the history of the world. Stop shouting your petty grievances and be grateful you have the strength to shout.
Perspective. We have the luxury of not having it, and need to do better at keeping it.