I believe that the human race suffers from a problem of perspective. As a biologist, I understand that our natural senses evolved to confront challenges that were limited to our immediate environment. By this point, however, our species has outgrown that immediacy, and the adaptations of our senses have failed to keep pace; our senses now trap us within the contraints of their resolution. For most people, seeing is believing—the ONLY believing. We will deny for decades a threat that moves too slowly for our eyes to track, like global warming. As an individual, I cannot detect the cummulative effect of violence in the entertainment industry nor feel the heft of the ton of carbon dioxide my car creates every 9800 miles.
Technological innovations have helped, to be sure. We now have microscopes to give us new perspectives of scale, and time-lapse photography provides an enlightening temporal perspective. But what this world desperately needs is for each of us to acquire conceptual perspective—the ability to THINK from other points of view. Faced with the threat of overpopulation or the geopolitical consequences of our national policies, we all need to pay better attention to sociological and environmental statistics, which give us a handle on conceptual perspectives of scale; it is our duty to study history as the conceptual equivalent of time-lapse photography.
This September 11 anniversary brought a revival of the talk about “evil-doers.” When we dismiss the al-Qaeda hijackers as “evil,” we evince an inability to see things from their perspective. To them, we and our cummulative sins seemed evil. Sure, terrorists themselves suffer a disconnect from their victims; perhaps, from all humanity. But we seem equally unable to get behind their eyes and thoughts. Most of us have refused to take an unblinking look at the faults Islamic extremists find in western culture. Contrary to the jingoistic claim that they hate our freedom, I believe what they hate is our license—our misuse of freedom as carte blanche for immoral and exploitative behavior. And here is where the perspective of viewpoint becomes a perspective of scale: each of us is responsible in at least some small way for the cummulative sins of modern society. I did not personally install the Saudi royal family to rule Arabia with an iron fist in exchange for cheap gasoline, but I wasted a lot of that gas as a teenager cruisin’ the streets on Saturday nights. For all I know, my 401K is invested in companies with policies that malign women just as surely as the Taliban did. In perspective, these things are additive; tolerance of a thousand cuts eventually scales up to our endorsement of a barbaric beheading. Of course, no single individual deserves to pay that cost. But neither do we merit the conceit that our own lives are free from evil thoughts and behaviors, how ever miniscule and unintentional they seem individually.
At times, it seems we are riding the massive, slow-turning ship of Destiny toward an iceberg that is largely unseen. And unlike a modern oceanliner, that Destiny is not steered by a single-minded captain but by billions of oarsmen who must all work in unison to achieve anything other than the accidental. It’s been said that few sensations could impact our worldview more powerfully than NASA’s first pictures of earth from space. But individuals can experience a more personal and perhaps more relevant version: The next time you travel by airplane, I challenge you to look down from 30,000 feet and try to pick out a single human being. Yet, as insignificant as a given individual is from that vantage, the mark of our species on the land is inescapable, even from that distance. Cummulatively, we are a formidable crew, capable of awesome good or ill. Only through an intentional cultivation of perspective can we tell one from the other.
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