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Putting It In Perspective

by Tim O'Hearn

Perspective is a fascinating, and sometimes tricky, thing. Artists, at least the kind I like, are quite familiar with the concept. Simply stated, objects of similar heights appear proportionately smaller the farther they are from the viewer. On a flat representation such as a painting, artists begin with lines from a given point, the vanishing point, so that the walls of a building, for instance, are kept in the proper perspective. Sometimes violating the rules of perspective creates an intentionally jarring picture, such as a person appearing as tall as a building or a house that looks out of kilter because the vanishing point is misplaced. Colloquially we speak of keeping things in perspective, meaning the important things take bigger place than the less important.

Perspective is all a matter of point of view. To one standing in the artist’s place one tree may appear taller than the other, because it is supposed to be closer. To a person depicted far away in the picture, the perspective would be reversed; the apparently shorter tree would appear taller. Ursula K. LeGuin wrote a delightful story based on this idea. In it a solitary tree beside a road discusses the difficulty of appearing to get larger to oncoming traffic at the same time as appearing to get smaller to traffic that has passed. Perspective can become difficult when looked at from varying points of view at the same time, something we are ill-equipped to do.

And yet, should we not try to see ourselves as the person at the other end of the perspective sees us? When we consider ourselves and our problems so large and him so small, should we not rather view the other as larger and we ourselves as small? The Scottish poet put it aptly. “O wad some Pow'r the giftie gie us/ To see oursels as others see us/ It wad frae monie a blunder free us.” (Robert Burns, To a Louse)

The scripture puts the idea a little differently, but the concept is still the same. “Be kindly affectioned one to another with brotherly love; in honour preferring [literally to go before in order to show the way] one another.” (Rom 12:10) We are to be examples to others of viewing things from a reverse perspective. Paul is telling us to show others how to see the other person as more important.

This is the real meaning of loving one another, including our enemies. The love spoken of is not an emotion, but an act of will. It is more than simply hoping that things go well for another. It is not just “positive good will.” Love is desiring the best for another person, even if you have reason not to do so, and then acting to see that the best happens. It is seeing things from the other person’s perspective, in which you may be very small, and acting on that vision. This is not always easy. We have difficulty comprehending a new perspective. It is, however, necessary if we are to be holy, as God is holy.

It is said that an airplane’s shadow is the same size in flight as it is on the ground. This is because the distance in flight is minimal in comparison to the total distance from the sun. The perspective is such that the shadows are essentially the same. So it is with us. If we look at others as being just as close to, or just as far from, God as we are, then we are all the same size. When we see our brother from God’s perspective we must love, because we are all the same.