Orlaith O’Sullivan, Ph.D.
Perspective: the strength that holds the bigger picture
In this post, we explore how the character strength of perspective is closely linked to living an engaged life and the art of aging well, and how to apply it in our daily life with three practical suggestions.
The character strength of perspective is one of five wisdom strengths that help us to attain and engage knowledge in skillful ways. (The other wisdom strengths are: love of learning, judgement, creativity and curiosity.)
Perspective carries with it the sense of expanded knowledge and seeing the big picture. Its energy often supports the wider community while simultaneously soothing the heat of individual ego-reactivity. Think of a wise mentor figure, helping the hero at a key moment in their journey – like Star Wars’ Obi Wan Kenobi or The Oracle in The Matrix.
Research reveals that perspective is one of the strengths most connected with living an engaged life. Socially, perspective helps us to recognise and identify systemic bias. At work, perspective helps us to assess unhealthy systems, taking time to understand the complex workings that have led us to this point. In relationships, perspective trains us to see things from others’ viewpoints, and to integrate these very different experiences and wisdoms into a wider, deeper understanding.
Perspective acts as a buffer, protecting us from the worst effects of stress and trauma. It also helps us to recognise how things are and to stop wishing things were different – it’s no coincidence that perspective is closely linked with the art of ageing well. The strengths most often found alongside perspective are: social intelligence, judgement, hope, bravery and honesty. Together, they form a powerful collective for healing, living a meaningful life and deepening human connection.
So how can perspective help you today? Here are three practical suggestions to experiment with, with a little help from a Zen Master along the way.
1. Perspective is a great strength to eat with
You can enjoy your coffee or your lunch with perspective. As you’re eating or drinking, you can intentionally widen your awareness to consider where your food has come from.
In How to Eat, Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh offers us a beautiful reflection to awaken our sense of perspective when drinking a cup of tea:
“Looking deeply into your tea, you see that you are drinking fragrant plants that are the gift of Mother Earth. You see the labour of the tea pickers; you see the luscious tea fields and plantations in Sri Lanka, China, and Vietnam. You know that you are drinking a cloud; you are drinking the rain. The tea contains the whole universe.”
You can use your imagination to trace the many conditions that have come together to bring this food to you, perhaps across countries or continents. You are part of something so much bigger and it is nourishing you in this moment.
2. Perspective is a great strength to listen with
The strength of perspective gives you the energy to widen from the smaller part of you that is clinging to your opinions. As we listen, we can be aware that the knowledge we currently possess is not changeless, absolute truth.
“Usually when we hear or read something new, we just compare it to our own ideas.” writes Thich Nhat Hanh in The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching. “ If it is the same, we accept it and say that it is correct. If it is not, we say it is incorrect. In either case, we learn nothing.”
Healthy knowledge is organic: always discovering, learning and growing. When listening, the energy of perspective helps to metabolise irritation and impatience, so that we can be present with authentic humility. And in this openness lies the possibility for learning.
3. Perspective helps us to notice the good in our lives
We know that the human brain has a negativity bias. It is wired to cling to painful experiences; it overestimates threats and challenges. It underestimates resources and opportunities. It lets many sources of goodness slip by without even being noticed.
So how do we train for a more sane perspective? At the end of your day, allow your sense of perspective to go over your day and scan for all the good ingredients. They can be simple elements that you appreciate, like an absence of rain this morning or the presence of good coffee. They might be more personal – a friend’s text or your dog’s good mood. Allow your perspective to gently guide you, as deeply as possible: the presence of meaningful relationships, the actions that highlight what is important to you in your life – for yourself, for others, for the planet.
“When the sun of awareness shines, the nature of thoughts and feelings is transformed,” says Thich Nhat Hanh in The Sun My Heart. Shine light across your entire day. Try it for a week and see what happens.
With practice, perspective helps us to grow cognitively, meaningfully and gracefully. We encounter the obstacles and joys of our daily life with spaciousness and wisdom. Happy training!