As human beings it is inevitable that at some point in our lives we will develop feelings of sadness, hopelessness and even depression. These emotions can be brought on by something personal like losing a job, a failed relationship, or a serious health issue for you or a loved one; or sometimes they are triggered by something more global like corrupt political systems, war, or the knowledge that there are starving children all over the world.
Regardless, we are just people and no matter how hard we may try to mitigate negative emotions, they persist. The purpose of this article is NOT to explain to you how detrimental these negative feelings are, but rather give some practical tools for gaining perspective amid these rough times. Living with perspective means always looking at your life from the 10,000 foot level, and when you entrain yourself to pull back and view yourself from this height things begin to look a little different. More often than not, they begin to look much better.
So HOW do we do it? Here are four effective practices for gaining perspective:
Delving into a well-written book can really speak to your soul, and is an excellent practice to feeling life from the vantage point of someone else. More specifically read a book that is told from the vantage point of an older person or someone towards their end of his/her life. Ask yourself: what would this older person who can barely walk and do anything by herself do if she were placed in my body? Begin acting as this person would if she had the ability to switch bodies with you.
I recently finished Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen which was a partial narrative by a 93 year old man looking back at his days in the circus during the Great Depression. Although his time in the circus was marked with struggle and fear he reflects on those days as the most memorable of his life. Are YOU right here, right now, living those days? Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom is another wonderful tale that I highly recommend.
2. Seek out an older grandparent, great uncle or someone you know who is 80+ years and initiate a purpose-filled conversation.
Ask them about their most cherished memories and listen to them as they talk of the past, when they were young and vibrant and full of hope. Understand that they also had feelings of fear, sadness and struggle (just like you have), but get the sense that they would do anything to go back in time and re-live those moments. Ask them if they would do things differently or exactly the same. Come away from this conversation with the understanding that right now YOU are the one living the life you will speak of when you are older.
One of my biggest regrets is that I knew and remember all four of my grandparents, but never had the good sense to ask them specifically about their lives. If you still have these people around, seek them out; they are your family and they love you. The conversation will be beneficial to them as well and gives them the opportunity to share what they have learned, and they will appreciate your asking!
There are countless people all over the world who are in need of assistance, and volunteering your time and energy enables you to perform a selfless act that simply helps others. However, volunteering does not have to be completely selfless; in fact I would argue that becoming a volunteer is a wonderful way to gain perspective in your own life (and not in the “oh, look how badly these people have it and thank God I’m me” way).
Volunteering is unique in that it gives you a very pure opportunity to connect with people that you may never have met otherwise. I am always surprised by how much I learn about myself through relationships I never would have forged if I hadn’t volunteered my time. “Giving back” reaps perspective.
4. Examine the actions of kids 5 years and younger
If you have your own kids, then you know what I am talking about. If not, then go to a park where little kids play and simply watch what they do (be careful not to appear like some crazy person)! If you tune in and become really aware of them, it’s amazing to observe how all little kids act with a similar reckless abandon. They simply do exactly what they want to do, all the time.
Aside from being absolutely hilarious, there is a serious lesson of perspective to be learned here. Remember, you were once just like these little people, but as you have gotten older you have gone away from acting with such a care-free attitude and become a “serious, responsible adult”. As you are watching these kids, ask yourself if it wouldn’t feel nice to be like that again, even for a little while.
Gaining perspective in your life is an important exercise that you must purposefully develop. By reading good books, speaking with older relatives, volunteering and observing little kids you can start to get a more rounded view of the world you are living. As you partake in these activities, entrain yourself to start looking at your life outside the realm of your current circumstances; see yourself as if 40 years from the future, and 30 years from the past. We all have very real problems and situations to deal with; some are in our control while others are not. The only thing that we really have control of is our emotions when dealing with situations. Gaining perspective is a wonderful tool for sustaining a meaningful and fulfilling life!