One of the most useful skills I’ve chosen to develop in my own life is that of empathy. This is an exploration of how we can invest in and strengthen that skill, and how it can unlock tremendous improvements in life – both within ourselves, and around us.
It is a glimpse into play as a way to befriend our imaginations; and imagination as a way to befriend everyone – and everything – else.
Perspective is a very powerful thing. It is also not something that our culture and world teach us to pay much attention to. Indeed, it is very easy to forget that “our perspective” even exists at all! Sometimes, if we have an experience of privilege, we can believe that our perspective is the “default” or universally shared by everyone; if we have an experience of marginalization or oppression, we may be told that our perspective isn’t real or doesn’t matter.
Regardless of why we might do so, adjusting our perspective can be a remarkably powerful thing. Much of my own personal journey as a survivor of severe trauma and abuse has involved reframing – the skill of permanently altering my own perspective.
There are also useful ways we can shift our perspective temporarily as well; not to change ourselves, but to better see how others might experience or think of things. These skills can help reduce miscommunications, disarm conflicts, and enrich connections and relationships of all kinds.
I think words matter, a lot. Words are often invisibly interwoven with our viewpoints; and they often form a distilled, crystallized representation of our perspective. Learning to notice the threads of that tapestry, and follow them to the meaning of words, is an invaluable capacity for all kinds of communication.
As a child, I grew up surrounded by languages I did not speak. While English remains my primary and only fluent language, I have had the wonderful opportunity to learn how to conduct every-day life in other languages as well. Speaking English as a primary and fluent language in today’s world is a form of societal privilege, and one which I carry; but in a lot of ways, I think multilingual experience is a very precious privilege, too.
It is the ability to shift between ways of thinking, beyond simply words-at-face-value, that has proven so vital to my own survival, learning, growth, and quality of life. It is this ability, of looking past language in search of meaning, that allows me to adjust my understanding so fluidly.
I am often very particular about the language I use to describe myself and my experiences. This comes up in some interesting ways from time to time.
For example, I do not like to think of myself as “marginalized.” I am, to be clear, very much oppressed by various systems of kyriarchy. But I do not see myself as being “pushed into the margins” of society.
I do not wish to be in the “mainline” of that society. It offers me virtually nothing of value or comfort. I am not on the fringes of a world that wants to shove me aside; I am not desperately begging to be let in, to be included, to belong there. I avoid words that suggest this, when describing myself.
Instead, I see myself very differently. I look out at the empty space in front of me, and I do not see a margin, into which I am precariously and involuntarily thrust. I look out at that empty space and know that I write my life-story onto a brand new page.
This is about how I learned to make those kinds of distinctions.
Framing the Problem
I tend to approach challenges, in general, with a very systematic and deliberate methodology. It was part of what made me an exceptional engineer, during my career. I find that my approach also works well with things like tackling new skills or habits. By knowing more about the context, I find it much easier to understand the purpose of the exercises. So in that spirit, I want to begin by laying out my perspective on why all of this matters.
Limiting perspective is, fundamentally, a crucial tool used by various oppressive systems to maintain their power and control in the world. Different incarnations of this appear all over the place. In the context of white supremacy culture, for example, the notion of “One Right Answer” or “One True Way” often appears, and this is a classic example of artificially-limited perspective.
(If you’re not familiar with the term “white supremacy culture” as I’ve used it here, I highly recommend exploring this public Google Doc about the subject, as well as diving into some of the additional resources I have collected about these matters.)
More generally, though, artificially-limited perspective is a manifestation of a pattern that often appears among the weapons of oppression. I think of this as a blend between exhaustion (which is the word I use to describe anything that tries to make things smaller or more scarce than they should be) and idea control (which is the term I use to indicate anything that seeks to stipulate how we think and make decisions).
In a nutshell, this weaponized combination of factors can be expressed as a sentiment. It is the idea that “there can only be a limited number of valuable ways in which to see the world.”
Often, this kind of reductive idea-control is paired with some kind of suggestion of which ways are “the valuable ones.” For instance, dismissal of ancestral knowledge and wisdom suggests that only relatively recent ways of thinking are good and useful – this often manifests with derisive language like “old fashioned” or “outdated” or even “primitive.” Even the very usage of the word “modern” often carries an implied superiority – and, by extension, a dismissal and devaluation of anything that is “not modern.”
By demanding that we only consider certain ideas to have worth, this mechanism of oppression cuts us off from other ideas that have literally endured the test of time – and surely, there must be some value in them, for them to have survived so long in the first place!
This also works at the other extreme – consider the number of sources of joy and happiness and pleasure we choose to deny ourselves (and each other) because they are “childish” and we “are too old for that.” In rejecting ways of thinking and doing things simply because of their (perceived) age, we deny ourselves much of the abundance of life.
This is only one small example, of course. Once we begin to learn to recognize this kind of artificially-limited thinking, we can see it everywhere in our contemporary world. The medical industry has only one perspective, and that is disease; and as the saying goes, when you only have a hammer, the whole world starts to look like oddly-shaped nails. If we only think of ways of living well in terms of diseases, is it any wonder we feel despair at how many ways things can go wrong, at how many sicknesses and disorders exist?
But what if we were to choose to see things differently? What if, for example, we choose to reject the narrative that certain ways that brains operate are “diseased” or “disordered” or “deficient”? What if, instead of thinking of ourselves (or others around us) as broken or lacking, we focus on the beauty of what is working well already?
I am both invisibly disabled and an autistic person, so this exact act of reframing has been a truly revolutionary shift in perspective for me – both in terms of how I think and feel about myself, and in terms of how I relate to the people and world around me.
This kind of reframing is very difficult. It is not something we are trained to do, nor is it easy to learn. There are not many resources describing how it can be done. But worst of all, whenever we take up the work of trying to learn such skills, we are liable to find ourselves encountering resistance all around us – or maybe even from within us!
The crucial fact is that this feeling of struggle, of resistance, occurs by design.
Experiencing a sense of strain, even at the idea of altering our thinking this way, is a tell-tale indicator. It is a revelation of the presence of systemic oppression, which tries to make it hard for us to change our views in such ways.
To my engineering-prone brain, this immediately poses some important questions. Why is this an important thing to oppressive systems? What purpose does such inertia serve?
Restricting our understanding primarily serves to curtail our ability to undermine those same systems of oppression. This is not too much of a stretch to see, and is well-explored by many other thinkers before me. But I also ask more questions: why does oppression like to focus on affecting our thinking?
I think of it as a kind of exploitation of vulnerability – in much the same way that a security analyst might use such terms. I think this phenomenon arises from a combination of a natural and inevitable consequence of how brains work, plus acts of deliberate, malicious intent, which have become invisibly tangled into the very culture and fabric of the social worlds we occupy.
Brains are, by nature, very malleable. They can be changed – both in terms of the ideas in them, and their actual, physical structure; this is the idea of neuroplasticity. However, there are phases of life when brains are easier to change than others – notably, it is much easier to change a brain’s shape during childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood than it is in elder years. But that change is still possible, even though it is more difficult.
By focusing on children, oppressive systems can perpetuate very specific ideas – literally shaping and molding the minds of the young, at their most impressionable. Once these ideas get into our heads, so to speak, they can take a lot of work to dislodge.
One particularly insidious example of this kind of manipulation occurs in the form of patriarchal conditioning. When young children are taught what is acceptable (and isn’t) based on gender roles, they acquire certain ideas that often become deeply rooted aspects of how they live.
Patriarchy likes to weaponize this by teaching us – at all ages, but especially children – that emotions are feminine and inferior to logic; that bodies are to be controlled and over-ridden, not listened to; and that brains are the best parts of us to have “in charge” of our decisions.
There are, of course, similar ideas also reinforced by other systems of oppression, such as ableism, saneism, and socioeconomic class dynamics that prize certain kinds of bodies and brains; this strategy is hardly exclusive to patriarchy, but the overall combined effects are devastatingly potent.
As a result, our culture consistently derides emotion as a bad way to make decisions. Messages that reinforce this notion are everywhere. This can even be seen in spheres like politics, where sexist assumptions about emotional decision-making are used to justify excluding women from positions of power, or forcing them to “stay in line” behind male gatekeepers.
Moreover, we also love to despise the knowledge and wisdom inherent in our bodies. We are told to resist our cravings and deny our urges, because those are “unhealthy”, even though our bodies – especially after we learn to disentangle from manipulative ideas like fatphobia and other kinds of body-shaming – are often incredibly powerful sources of information for what we actually need.
This denial of embodied wisdom cuts both ways; we also shame the idea of wanting or needing rest as “laziness” and judge ourselves (and each other) harshly for not doing “enough” of various things. This is further underscored by capitalistic drives to exploit our efforts, tying our “worth” to our “productivity.” The truth laziness does not exist – as a concept, it is a form of societal gaslighting, designed to make us doubt the significance of our own limitations and capacities.
Instead of learning to understand the efficient, rich wisdom of emotion, and instead of studying the ways in which our own bodies tell us how best to be healthy, we are told to make all of our decisions with our brains.
Toxic masculinity in particular represents a horrific demonstration of what happens when this weaponized idea-control goes to its logical conclusion: huge swaths of our population have been convinced to shun the very sources of meaning and direction that could enrich them, and this has gone on for many generations. Often this rejection manifests as myriad kinds of violence – men lashing out at the world in despair and rage and frustration, having been denied any other kind of way to engage with emotional life. Even those of us who are not the direct targets of this kind of poisonous thinking can wind up believing it.
Such overly-constrained ways of thinking do not simply affect our interpersonal interactions, however. In point of fact, this over-emphasis on very specific kinds of knowing and thinking is involved in virtually all of our present global crises. Even the actively unfolding catastrophe of climate change is connected to excessively-simplistic understandings about the world we live in, and how to live well here; by upholding certain kinds of brain activities as the “right” ones for understanding our world, we’ve in fact done nothing but severely damage it, and ourselves along with it.
But why choose “brain” as the thing to uphold as our “best” source of good decision-making, clear understanding, and effective living?
Because, fundamentally, our brains are the easiest parts of us to control, due to neuroplasticity. Childhood conditioning is an extremely powerful – and nearly invisible – tool by which our ideas can continue to remain artificially limited, and we can go on, generation after generation, upholding oppressive systems and beliefs without even realizing that we’re doing it.
The good news is, neuroplasticity never goes away. Our brains remain capable of changing for our entire lives, even if it may be hard work. This means we can break free from this prison of falsely-tiny ideas. We can expand our understandings, and find other perspectives. Escape is available, at any time – we just have to choose to accept the invitation, and make the effort.
Embracing the Learning Process
I see play as a vital skill for all of us. It is not something we should “outgrow” nor is it reasonable to demand that our play be de-prioritized in favor of “work.” I think it is telling that our very souls cry out against the injustice of being denied play as adults; we seek out the experience of sports leagues, recreational gambling, video games, and even “gamifying” our work environments, all in a desperate pursuit of a basic right of joyfulness that we’re told is only for children – or, perhaps, only for after our jobs are done.
By cutting off our supply of play, we also lose access to one of the most powerful skills involved in all forms of play, and that is imagination. Losing our imagination makes us much easier to control – it’s much easier for oppressive systems to “keep us in our place” if we are not skilled in thinking about what other places we could be in, instead.
I’ve spent a lot of time seeking refuge in my own imagination, in one way or another. Growing up in an abusive environment, surrounded by a wide range of forms of violence, I often found myself detaching from the reality around me in favor of something else… sometimes anything else.
Even as an adult, long after I was “supposed to” give up on imagination as a pastime and source of pleasure, I’ve continued to do this. I’ve explored imagination in the form of creative writing – both generating my own, and reading the works of others. I’ve spent countless hours over many years role-playing in dozens of different games (with varying degrees of blending physical, virtual, and purely-imaginary components).
While I still make a point of enjoying my imagination for its own sake, I’ve also come to see imagination as a crucial ingredient for other life skills, as an adult. In particular, I find imagination critical to _empathy – _the ability to relate to the perspectives of others.
When I think about perspective, and empathy, I often go back to a visual example that is deeply rooted in my mind.
As a child, I spent a lot of time traveling. Whether I was in the back seat of a car, on a train, in a bus, flying on a plane, or even just walking, I liked to watch the scenery. One of the things I always loved to see, when I passed them by, were orchards.
Deliberately planted orchards can have thousands of trees in them; but they are also very carefully structured. They often have the trees lined up into neat rows, with paths between them for access. Sometimes, huge orchards may be divided into large grids of crisscrossing pathways.
Moving past these groups of trees gave me one of my earliest and most visceral experiences of the relevance of perspective.
From the window of a moving car or train, traveling past an orchard, we can see the trees in many ways. Most of the time, we can see the overall mass of foliage, although sometimes we can’t peer very far inside. As we shift along, we can sometimes catch glimpses down the rows between the trees – and for a split second, the blurry wall of brown and green parts, and we stare down an ephemeral corridor, seeing perhaps dozens or hundreds more trees… until we move far enough along, that this vantage gives way, and we just see the nearest wall of trees again.
I loved traveling past huge orchards (and other similar things, like regularly-planted fields) because it provided a playful way to experience a constant stream of ever-changing perspectives. Moving fast enough, the rows would flicker in and out of view, one after another… each row teasing the briefest glimpse into what was down those mysterious hallways of branches, before it was gone again.
Orchards were a delightful source of inspiration for my imagination. I enjoyed an incredible number of hours just dreaming of what might be hiding down all those rows – what I might find, if I could stop traveling for a moment, slow down, and go look between the trees, instead of speeding on by and just seeing a wall of greenery.
Even today, I find the example of the orchard a powerful one. What we see depends on how hard we are willing to look – but it also depends greatly on where we look from. Standing directly in front of a single, scrawny tree, staring at its bark, we might say “there’s not enough tree here.”
But if we said those exact same words, from an observation tower that overlooks thousands of trees in the entire orchard at once, they suddenly take on a very different significance.
Our perspective – our vantage point - is a massively important bit of context for our meaning. What we experience, what we express, and how we communicate are all informed by our perspective. If we have a different perspective from someone else, we may use all the same words, but convey extremely different ideas: this is a common cause of misunderstanding and miscommunication.
It is why I often used to lament, in business meetings, that “everyone here is using English words, so you don’t realize that you’re all speaking different languages.”
When we want to understand what someone else is communicating, we need the ability to see – even temporarily – from their perspective. It is precisely this ability that also gives us the capacity for empathy. This, like any skill, can be developed and grown, with practice; and like anything which grows, it grows outwards, from that which is already alive and healthy.
In order to be able to adjust our perspective to understand others, we need a certain degree of flexibility. Often, especially early on in trying to develop this skill, we may find it difficult or uncomfortable. It is tempting to stop trying when this discomfort gets intense.
However, learning emotional skills is different than learning physical or even mental skills. When our bodies tell us we’ve pushed too hard, we need to stop, or we risk injury; when our minds tell us we’ve pushed too hard, we need to take a break, or we risk additional confusion and mistakes and difficulty. It is natural to assume that when our emotions get intense when learning a skill, we need to step away from practice for a bit.
I contend, however, that this is sometimes a mistake. Often, strong emotions are a sign of exactly where we need to go. Feelings don’t resolve themselves when we ignore them. Feelings resolve when we listen to them, and experience them fully.
That can be a very difficult thing – and please don’t misunderstand me, sometimes forging ahead into tough emotions is a very bad idea. In the realm of trauma therapy in particular, it is well-understood that staring into those extreme feelings can become very destructive for us. Before we can feel those feelings – and truly process what they are telling us – we need other supporting skills. We must be well-equipped before we dive into some kinds of feelings; and that, too, is a skill to be grown with time and practice.
Many times, a reluctance to explore other people’s perspectives is rooted in an uncertainty that we can handle the discomfort of leaving our own.
This is why I emphasize that, before I could personally take on the project of growing my empathy, I needed to learn to be my own best friend and supporter. Without being able to handle my own discomfort and fear, I never would have had the capacity to explore ideas different from my own. Some degree of this self-security is vital for anyone interested in developing empathy.
As we become more comfortable with ourselves, we find it easier to identify parts of how we think and act which may deserve closer examination. And that can, in turn, grow into an ability to change our thinking and behavior. In this way, we develop even more – and just as a tree with lots of branches has many potential places to start new branches, we can unlock even more growth and skillfulness in our practice of empathy and relationship.
Ultimately, this pattern continues beyond just the personal. When a group of people share understanding and perspectives, rooted in our own confident ability to engage with the discomfort and exertion of growth, we can dramatically expand our collective understanding. Much healing, wisdom, and creation comes from these kinds of groups sharing perspectives.
In time, and with practice, we can come to think of our “collective understanding” as not just “everyone seeing things in the same way.” Regardless of how many of “us” there are in a group, the collective understanding is more like the combination of each of our own specific perspectives and ideas. We become the sum total of many, not merely a consistent, homogenous blob. Our differences make our totality even larger.
To find harmony in a large group, we need to be able to work effectively with different perspectives. It is not enough for everyone to think alike; that usually involves erasure, silencing, and coercion. Instead, we need to find ways to enjoy the fact that our difference makes our group bigger and can also make it healthier.
I like the word dance quite a lot. Dancing, as a literal physical activity, was something I was denied as a young girl, often violently. So doing it now is very validating and freeing. It is also something I find extremely satisfying and joyous, as an autistic adult. Dancing can happen in many ways – we can dance solo, we can dance with a partner, and we can dance in groups.
Dance, fundamentally, involves a few key elements. Among other things, it requires some autonomy, and an ability to exercise that autonomy. Dance can be very uniquely our own or it can be structured and collaborative; but even if we are dancing by ourselves, we need to at least be able to guide our own movements so we don’t fall over or run into things.
I think of physical dancing, however, as a specific kind of dance; it is an example of a larger pattern, to me. Another way to think of it is that I use the word as a kind of a seed that grows into many other sorts of ideas, all of which share similarities, but are each distinct and different.
As I see it, the larger pattern of dance is one of endless possibility, boundless free expression, and extraordinary collaboration that can produce results that are astoundingly more complex than a “sum of their parts.” To me, one of the most compelling examples of this pattern – especially with a large number of participants – is bird flocks.
By watching flocks of birds in flight, we can learn that there are ways to stay in alignment with a larger group, all while retaining our own particular location, vantage, experiences, and autonomy. We can flow together, without ever losing ourselves, and reveal – or even create – larger movement and patterns than anyone could ever accomplish in isolation.
This ability to harmoniously move in a larger group, simultaneously grounded in our own personal strength and capability, while voluntarily taking on and then in turn affecting the larger dance of those around us, is an essential skill for any kind of social existence.
Dancing within a collective understanding is an essential skill for life.
How to Dance
So this adjusting of perspectives, this practice of empathy… how do we actually do it? Where do we begin learning and cultivating this skill, especially if there are so few resources to learn from?
I won’t presume to offer any sort of exhaustive or comprehensive set of answers. I can only share what I have done, for myself, and invite us all to continue adding to our collective toolbox of techniques and methods. With that caveat provided, I can certainly offer some very concrete and actionable processes for expanding perspective.
Starting With Language
I love writing. It is an activity I’ve enjoyed for most of my life, although I started out by falling in love with reading first. It took me time to develop the skills and confidence to write for myself. Part of what made that journey difficult is that my brain is very different from most people’s brains, and the way I like to use words does not always match what most people want me to do with words. Because of this, I was frequently told I was a very bad writer, until well into adulthood.
Another element of my relationship with writing is my experience with multiple languages. I am sad that I have not had much reason to use more languages than English in many years, because I very much enjoy linguistics. However, even when communicating entirely in English, I routinely make use of certain skills of translation.
In order to translate an idea from one language to another, we need to know a lot of things. We need some idea of the context and the intended meanings. Knowing the speaker helps a lot. Knowing the audience is also quite useful. In general, the more we know about the situation, the relevant cultures, the history and experiences of everyone involved, and so on, the better we can translate.
Anyone who has tried to translate any real amount between languages has run into the phenomenon of things which don’t translate at all – one language may have a single word that takes many paragraphs of explanation to convey in a different language. These kinds of gaps exist all over the place. Moving understanding from one context to another can be an incredibly large amount of work!
This is why computer-powered translations, including “chat bots”, are of extremely limited use – they only consider the structure of words and how they are arranged, but they cannot, by their very nature, factor in all of the context that actually imbues words with meanings. The vast majority of that context lives in our minds and hearts, not in our sentences.
The trick is that, even when we are only using one language, the same problems can arise! Based on variances in our personal experiences, emotions, pre-existing ideas, and even our very neural structures, we can encounter words and understand them as meaning something quite different than they were intended to mean.
All miscommunication and misunderstanding happens, at the root, because of mismatched contexts of meaning.
By thinking carefully about different contexts and perspectives, we can learn to see various ways in which words (either in isolation or in bunches) might offer one meaning to one person, and a different meaning to someone else.
Truly exploring this in depth requires being aware lots of different ways that people might experience life! So our best bet is to think of this as an ongoing process of learning, to constantly add to our personal collection of awareness, so we can understand more meanings from other perspectives.
This can be a lot of work and take a lot of time. I like to practice, sometimes, by using play. I don’t like to “play” with other people’s ideas or lived experiences, to be very clear. That can lead to disrespect and other problems. Instead, I like to use playfulness with my own ideas and words, in order to try to see how I can expand them. That skill can then be transferred, with respectful appreciation, to my ability to relate beyond myself.
A lot of people dislike puns, but I think they are a wonderful playground for this exact skill. Puns can give us a way to see one word or idea in multiple ways, and can even be funny and enjoyable. Many kinds of jokes and humor actually are based on this principle as well – taking our expectations about something, and playing with those expectations to instead go someplace silly, absurd, or strange.
Exploring different perspectives can be as easy (and enjoyable!) as thinking about why we are amused by what we find to be funny!
When we get more comfortable and confident with different interpretations of words and ideas, we can start exploring larger variations on this theme.
For example, it is very easy to not think about what assumptions we make. We might say something like “water is wet” and feel like it’s obvious that this makes sense to everyone who encounters it. But there are a lot of hidden assumptions here! See if you can think of two or three assumptions lurking in just that simple phrase.
When we start to think about the implicit – the things we don’t point out or think about directly – we can illuminate those assumptions much more easily. We can also start to find ways in which our assumptions might differ from other people’s assumptions!
For example, this piece of writing relies heavily on experiences of sight and hearing – many of my chosen analogies and examples may not convey the same meaning to someone who is Deaf or blind. I have drawn much on assumptions about shared sensory experiences, even though they are not really universally shared.
If you needed to translate the phrase “water is wet” into a language spoken by aliens who were made out of gas, how would you do it? Maybe their word for “water” is actually much more like our word for “steam” – and, depending on what we mean by “wet”, suddenly the phrase stops making much sense!
This is another example of how imagination can be a very useful tool for practicing our ability to shift our perspectives.
Sometimes we might have trouble communicating unless we’re exploring our hidden assumptions and implicit meanings. In many cases, we can find clearer ways to share our meaning by thinking about other options – things like alternating between various synonyms, rephrasing or repeating ideas in different ways, or even just listing out definitions of how we are using a specific word, can add a lot of clarity to our communications. (For a fun bonus exercise, see if you can identify a few places where I’ve used such techniques throughout this essay!)
Getting What We Want
A common place where miscommunication and misunderstanding can be frustrating is in the realm of goals. This can occur in the context of friendships or other relationships, from things as mundane as agreeing about what to do this evening, to where we want to make home and live our lives. It can also appear in places like jobs and organizations, where we need to work together with others to accomplish larger objectives.
It can be very tricky and difficult to clearly communicate goals and plans. It can also be quite hard to understand why someone has chosen specific goals and plans without a lot of explanation and background information, and we aren’t always able to get (or provide!) that context.
Misaligned plans are at the heart of all kinds of things from business failures to political dysfunction – and that’s just when they happen by accident. Skilled manipulators can express one thing as if it is their plan, while secretly intending to do something different; and then they can point to a “misunderstanding” if anyone calls them on their nonsense, claiming they always meant something different. It is common in all scales, from interpersonal gaslighting, to authoritarian governments.
Learning to understand these differences in objectives and goals requires being able to take on other perspectives. It is a hard skill, and can be a scary one since so many things in our world seem to be built on malicious (or even just accidental) variations of this pattern. But it is well worth learning, because it can help us live much more effectively and skillfully in our complex world. We can more easily discern the difference between accidental miscommunication, and actual opposition.
Whenever we encounter things like goals or stated desires, it can be very helpful to dig into the details. By going beyond our initial surface-level comprehension of the words involved, we can begin to understand more about deeper motivations. This can be a very revelatory exercise.
When I think about goals – whether they are my own, or I am trying to understand someone else’s – I like to use a few probing questions to go beyond just a simple statement of objective.
- What matters? What all is important, and how important is it? What is flexible and what cannot be traded or changed?
- What is available to work with? What are the relevant resources and capacities?
- What is different between the way things are right now, versus what is wanted? What needs to change? What can stay the same?
- Is the goal a specific set details, or a general feeling? Is a most-of-the-way solution acceptable, or does it have to be exactly a particular thing?
- What emotions and experiences come up because of the way things are now, and what emotions and experiences are expected once the goal is met? In other words, how does it feel now, and how do we want to end up feeling?
These kinds of questions are not the end of the process! Usually, exploring each question leads to many more questions. This can be exhausting and overwhelming at first. (It can also be reacted to with hostility if people think it comes from a place of not wanting to be helpful, so phrasing the exploration delicately is very important too!) However, with persistence, this approach often leads to much richer understandings.
In the same way, we can use this kind of exploration to understand why we resist or oppose certain goals as well. This can be crucial for developing consensus and arriving at shared, common ground. Rather than fixating on “yea” or “nay” on one level, we can dive into the specifics to understand what might be getting in the way.
By learning what someone wants to achieve (or protect), and why, and how, we can often find a much stronger way to help support that objective. We might also realize that the objective could lead to problems, and help suggest alternative options; or we might realize we know of better ways to get slightly different results, and if those are acceptable, we can avoid a lot of extra effort!
As a bonus, if we do this kind of deep exploration repeatedly, we often find ourselves learning a lot about each other – and ourselves – in the process. This fuels more understanding and gives us even better access to other perspectives. This is is a large part of how the skill of shifting our perspective can continue to grow and expand over time, with repeated practice.
Nuanced Value Judgments
Often, when we want to communicate about ideas, or goals, or opinions, we might be tempted to use very simple and compact language. We might say something is “good” or “bad” or “helpful” or “harmful.”
These kinds of words – that seem to say a lot in a short amount of language – are excellent opportunities to explore perspectives in depth.
I am trans. I went through a very intense period during 2019 of profoundly revisiting my own understanding of myself. This included trying to separate many of my subjective opinions into things that I actually thought and felt, versus things that I had been conditioned or pressured to “think and feel.” I needed to find ways to understand where I ended and societal forces began. I needed to recognize “friend” – me – from “foe” – the hostile brainwashing of normative society that told me I had to be one kind of person, even though I knew I was someone else entirely.
During that time, I built myself a sort of system of tools for recognizing tricky patterns in my own thoughts and words. I called them snags. When I realized I wanted to know more about why I used a certain word, or thought about myself (or the world) in a certain way, I’d say to myself I was “setting up a snag” around those ideas or words.
The goal was to, essentially, derail myself for a second. By tripping up my train of thought on these “snags,” I learned to give myself extra time to consider what I was really trying to say, and whether or not I was just using a word or phrase by habit, or because it was really truly what I wanted to say.
I like using this system still, and I have ongoing “snags” established on very simple words like “good” and “bad.” The reason for this is quite straightforward: hidden underneath those words are a lot of assumptions and details; and taking time to explore those details can often reveal amazing things.
When I want to understand how I’m feeling about something, or why I want to make one decision instead of another, I like to dig into those details. I like to split things into parts – like dismantling a machine to see how it works, or using a prism to split white light into a rainbow of colors.
Whenever I’m tempted to think in terms like “this seems better than that,” I try to make an effort (when I’m able) to go beyond just a basic “yes or no” or a “balance.”
There is a technique used when evaluating subjective decisions that is fairly popular: making a list of “pros” and “cons.” Often, the advice is to see which choice has the most “pros” or the fewest “cons” and we just pick that one. The idea is that by trying to “balance” the “good” against the “bad”, we can find which route is likely to have the more desirable outcome.
However, I like to go much further than this. Instead of just this basic pro/con breakdown, I like to make many different, parallel lists, almost like columns in a spreadsheet.
This can feel very mechanical and artificial, especially at first. It can be awkward and silly to try and do this exercise when discussing decisions with someone else. But if we stick with it and practice, it becomes a lot easier over time. With some repetition and a willingness to experiment, we can get much richer understandings – not only of what we’re trying to decide or consider, but how others approach similar choices.
A way to make this playful is to invent some kind of “points,” and put different kinds of points into their own “columns.” Make them ridiculous and silly and arbitrary, but use them consistently. This adds an element of fun and imagination, while encouraging us to still use a system to express something. (You can change the rules every time you do this exercise – I even encourage it – just make sure you try to stay consistent inside a given use of this game, or it will just be nonsense.)
For instance, I can say “this option for lunch feels like 30 points of Tasty, but it’s 150 points of Inconvenient.” This is a much more detailed way of expressing the idea that “I like that restaurant but don’t want to travel there.” By adding other “columns” of points, we can make more complex decisions, and understand our values more richly and deeply.
If I add another score for “Nostalgia” or “Seeing Specific Friends”, that might radically change how “good” or “bad” I feel about a given choice. See if you can think of four or five different “factors” you might use to score basic every-day decisions like what to eat.
This kind of breakdown and detailed exploration is not always something we can afford to do, especially at first. But with practice, it gets easier, and we can do it more often. We also develop a more refined sense of what we think of as being important. When done in a group, this can help understand the desires, values, and priorities of those around us.
In fact, this kind of strategy – of deeply exploring the values of different things, and seeing how they combine into the choices we make – is so incredibly powerful, that it is routinely built into computer programs and simulations to help make fantastically sophisticated decisions automatically. In that particular context, the technique is often referred to as utility theory. It is a practice of perspective-shifting and empathy so powerful that it can make mathematical processes in a computer seem to mimic lifelike choices and preferences; just imagine how much it can unlock in our ability to understand each other!
As we build our skills of recognizing how and why we attach value and significance to things, we also open up the door to understanding other systems of valuation, and other sources of significance. Once we start go get comfortable with trying to see someone else’s point of view, we can learn a tremendous amount by actively exploring what others find to be “desirable” or “ideal” or “good.”
The more different kinds of people we can listen to, the better our own ability to understand other perspectives will become. This does not necessarily mean we have to adopt those other perspectives as our own!
We can learn to recognize the validity and usefulness of other opinions, even if we don’t share them. Even if we ultimately don’t end up changing our opinions at all, knowing how to recognize and respect the different ways in which others find value and meaning is extraordinarily helpful.
Glimpsing another perspective without fully committing to it is also important for protecting ourselves from problematic ideas. In the most extreme cases, we can learn to understand how people arrive at viewpoints and beliefs that we may find reprehensible or unacceptable.
This is, generally speaking, much safer than simply taking entire ways of thinking and refusing to ever engage with them at all. When we can articulate why we reject certain ideas, it is much less likely that we will accidentally cut ourselves off from beneficial ones. Emotion and other sources of information and wisdom (beyond mental logic) can be crucial in identifying what we consider to even be beneficial or harmful in the first place.
Please note that there is a very important distinction here between letting people try to persuade us of harmful ideas, versus listening to critique and deconstruction of those ideas from someone who does not share them. Trying to listen to (or argue with) people who hold certain extreme viewpoints can be dangerous; but understanding the impact and effects of those ideas can be vital. It’s the difference between studying political history or attending a fascist rally, for example; or listening to diatribes from racist extremists versus studying critical race theory.
Even in the realm of purely subjective matters, we can learn a lot from relaxing our ideas about what is “right” or “perfect.” This kind of rigidity – perfectionism – is another classic hallmark of white supremacy culture, and it leads to very narrow understandings and value judgments. It is often easier to spot when we are expecting very specific things before calling them “good” when we practice techniques like expanding our value judgments into nuanced categories.
Once again, this kind of skill is applicable on many different scales, including just deepening our own understanding of ourselves. To practice and refine it, I like to play a game I call “found perfection.”
The idea of Found Perfection is to just pick something arbitrary or random. Once we have a subject, the goal is to explain (either to ourselves, someone else, an imaginary audience – whatever works) why that subject is exactly perfect, precisely as it is, right now.
To illustrate, I will pick the door to the room I am in right now, typing up this essay. It is perfect because it is wedged open to give me easy access to the room. It is perfect because it has a metal handle that is easy for me to grasp and use when I need to open or close it. It is perfect because it has a small but visible chunk missing in the upper section, where it presumably got smashed by something when a previous resident lived here. It is perfect because it is painted white and covered in tiny, stubborn dirt stains from when I used to share my home with a dog. It is perfect because it has many missing chunks in the paint near the bottom, where that dog used to paw at it to try and get my attention when I was in this room with the door closed. It is perfect because it is hanging a tiny bit off-balance and does not close nicely during the summer, and closes a bit differently during the winter. It is perfect because I do not really like the design of the door and I have decided not to replace it.
Some of those statements may be surprising.
How can something be perfect because it is damaged? How can something be perfect because I don’t like it and also don’t do anything to change it?
This is precisely the point of Found Perfection. It is an exercise for stretching our definitions of what we think of as acceptable or desirable. It helps illuminate what we find important, and what we don’t. It helps us look beyond simply the way we want things to be, and become more at peace with the way things already are.
While it may seem silly, Found Perfection can help us appreciate anyone and anything around us, at any time. It can also help us focus on what we really want to try and spend our effort, energy, and time trying to change.
Expanding Into All of Life
I’ve talked a bit about how these various techniques, of expanding our perspectives and ideas, can help us in various ways. They can help us appreciate and understand ourselves, as well as those around us. They can add fun and entertainment to mundane activities. They can help us develop better relationships and more effective interactions.
I hope it is also starting to become clear that these ideas don’t just apply to human interactions. We can learn a lot by trying out these exercises on literally anything and everything – as I’ve shared before, I learned a lot about liberation from doing these thought-exercises about my own yard.
This may sound fanciful or preposterous at face value. It may also sound like way too much work – too much energy and effort to do all day every day. Like any skill, it is worth starting slow and being patient with the process. I did not start out doing this widely; but with years of repetition, trying to do this when I can – and being patient and kind with myself when I cannot – I’ve gained a lot, and I think everyone can at least benefit from exploring these ideas for a while, in whatever ways fit you.
If that seems daunting, consider this: by reading this very essay, you’ve already started practicing! Hearing the words I’ve shared here, even if you don’t do anything else at all with these ideas after you finish, is already the skill I’m describing. You can absolutely continue to grow that skill, if you want to, at any pace and in any direction that you like. You’ve proven you have the seeds already – how you grow them is up to you!
Why do I insist that this is relevant to all of life, though?
The answer is, I think, very important, and so I’ve chosen to conclude this exploration by saying a few more things about why.
Inseparability is a principle of our very universe. Whether we look at the extremely large models of cosmological physics, or the extremely tiny models of quantum mechanics, our reality itself shows fascinating ways in which things affect each other even when seeming to be separated by distances. The mathematical field of chaos mechanics explores the infinite permutations of unpredictable cause-and-effect that defy our intuition of locality; what happens here and now may dramatically alter something far away in both time and space.
Many of the oldest traditions and cultural perspectives about reality speak about these kinds of principles as well; it is such a powerful truth that, no matter if we look to “modern science” or ancient, ancestral wisdom, we find it over and over again: everything is interconnected.
Oppression has many weapons, but many of them come in the form of division – seeking to use differences to create excuses for disconnection. When we allow our differences to be used as justifications to deny our interconnectedness, no matter how big or how small, we perpetuate oppression.
Overcoming this tendency requires an ability to take on other perspectives – to try to understand the world in ways that are not our preference or our default. It requires thinking about more than ourselves. And in a very symmetrical way, truly developing understanding and empathy also requires us to explore how we are already, permanently and inescapably, interconnected, with each other, and with everything around us.
“Knowing” is not a simple quantity. It is not a “yes or no” question – do we “know” something or not. Knowledge is much more complex than that. The better we know something, the more we are able to see it from many different vantage points; the more we can appreciate it in different ways; the more we can see how it relates, and interconnects, with other things.
Deeply connected knowledge is bigger than any of us can possibly hold. We, along with our minds, are inherently finite. Because of this, sharing our perspectives is vital to developing collective understanding. It is only by gathering together all of our variations, uniqueness, and differences that we can put together a truly complete whole.
In other words, we live in an interconnected reality; and to live well, in this reality, requires embracing and cherishing all the different ways in which this reality manifests, no matter what shape or size. And that is more than anyone can do alone – we must share in the project, together.
Our very search for meaning and significance, in life, creates meaning and significance, adding our views and experiences to the grand cosmic pile of all the things everyone has ever felt and chosen to do. We are the agents of our own importance, for better or worse. We exist because of and within a complex, ever-shifting ecosystem of physical, biological, technological, and sociological forces. We can, together, make this into whatever we wish – if we can learn to share our perspectives.
To build a better world, to truly pursue liberation, we must learn to manage our discomfort, reduce our fear, and dismantle our hate for what something is not, and learn to love what it is. We must practice the skill of finding perfection, whenever and wherever we can, in our world. We must make peace and friendship with as much as possible of our existence, beginning within ourselves, so that we can focus on changing that which truly needs to change.
I have a quote, pinned to the profile of one of my social media accounts, from a few years ago. I’ve never really taken the time to explain it in depth before, but this is the perfect chance to do so.
I dream of a world where people can come together, share a chuckle about our similarities, and get on with the good bit – where we revel in our differences.
There is far more to be gained, by celebrating how we differ from each other, than by simply trying to find comfort and solace in how we are similar. Of course, to get there, we must first be willing to explore our similarities; it is from that starting ground that we can grow relationships rich enough to revel in our difference.
I hope that these ideas and techniques of shifting our perspectives, such as they are, might help with building such a world. I still dream of a day when we can all come to see difference not as “that which separates us” – but rather that which informs how we might dance together.