The word perspective derives from the Latin: per, meaning “through” and spectus, which translates to “look at.” So with a bit of word origin sleuthing, perspective means to look at something or someone through a particular vantage, viewpoint or lens. Simple enough. But not really.
One summer morning, when I was roughly twelve years old, I was lazily sleeping away the day, when my mother uncharacteristically barged through my bedroom door, interrupting my peaceful slumber. She was crying. Hard. I was disoriented and deeply moved. She didn’t cry often. In the split second it took her to explain what was amiss, my brain instantly raced to the only possible conclusion. My dad was dead. My dad was a good 14 years my mother’s senior. Aging and death were subjects he never shied away from. In fact, in some ways he strangely celebrated them. He was the only person I ever knew who gleefully looked forward to turning 60, which meant a “Golden Buckeye” card that offered a discount at many Ohio stores. He regularly lamented how tired he was, allowing him a pass on many physical games or activities with my brothers and me. I was also very aware that he was the oldest dad among my friends’ fathers. Much to my horror, someone had once mistakenly called him my grandfather. My father, however, found it delightfully amusing. Looking back, a narrative took shape in my brain that my dad would go first. It was the natural order of things. No one ever spoke it, but the idea that my mom would outlive my aging father was sort of a morbid understanding.
In the brief moment or two that it took me to gather my bearings that strange summer morning, my heart cried out at the sudden shock. I was devastated and stunned. My dad was dead. Then my mom spoke between sobs.
“The cat, poor little smokey has (sob) DIED! I just found him…”
It’s hard to explain the euphoric relief that washed over me at that moment. I was bowled over and instantly elated. My old beyond his years father was still living. He was ALIVE. Yes, the cat was gone, but it was hardly the blow I had experienced an excruciatingly long second ago.
My mom had rushed into my room, her heart burdened in knowing how much I adored my good ol’ playmate, Smokey. Part of her sadness undoubtedly was having to witness and experience my pain vicariously. Moms do that. Unknowingly though, she had miraculously cured me of any grief, melodramatic or otherwise. I absorbed the news. My insides shouted out, “IS THAT ALL?! Phew!” I heard her tell me that she would bury him near our rose bush in the backyard so I could see it from my bedroom window. “That’s nice,” I managed. Not a tear shed though. My mom searched my eyes a little strangely as if I were not processing this brush with death. She insisted I come see his lifeless little body. I declined. She left rather confused and probably misunderstood my nonchalance to be a bizarre coping mechanism. I don’t ever think I spoke what transpired in my thoughts. It was too dark and scary.
I remember laying my head back down on the pillow and ruminating for a while that I was so blissfully grateful that my dear father was still taking breath. What a gift! I had never thought that before.
I’d like to say that experience helped to frame future situations. That it offered me great wisdom and understanding in years to come. That when I struggle with something minor, I can see the bigger picture and have a point of reference to guide my pain or suffering. I should think, “it’s bad, but it’s certainly not THAT bad.” Maybe I do that occasionally. But achieving that perspective shift still does not come easily. And by grace, I have figured out that I need God’s help in achieving that enlightened perspective.
Several months ago, I read a book recommended by a pro-life speaker I admire. You may recognize her as the dynamo who shared her succinct worldview at Google headquarters. During her talk, Stephanie Gray said she hands out Viktor Frankl’s book, “Mans’s Search For Meaning” as a gift. It has been a great blessing in my life. In case you don’t get around to reading it, which you should, I will offer some of my favorite takeaways. Frankl wrote the book in 1946, after having survived four Nazi concentration camps, including Auschwitz. The rest of his family along with his pregnant wife were killed. The book is part memoir and part spiritual guide. Frankl was a highly educated psychiatrist, which didn’t prevent him from being treated like a criminal and thrown in the death camps. At some point, he decided he would study the psychology of the victims and captors. He treated it like a mission to offer some purpose in his unimaginable circumstance. He set out to learn what made some victims handle their hardship so heroically and with beautiful selfless virtue, while others seemed to crumble and turn on their fellow victims. The difference, he concluded, was a simple perspective shift. Simple, yet seismic. Those who found meaning and purpose in their pain managed to thrive in their humanity despite such brutish, incomprehensible treatment. While the prisoners who couldn’t assign meaning to their trials seemed to unhinge and take on the same characteristics as their inhumane captors. His mission to study and write a book was what motivated him to survive during his imprisonment. He also describes various patients later after his release, which help to solidify this understanding. One anecdote that stuck with me was of an elderly man whose wife died. The man was devastated and inconsolable. He did not want to go on living without his wife. Frankl offered him a fresh view of his tragedy. He asked the man what would have happened if he had died first, leaving the wife a widow. The man said it would have caused the woman he loved great grief and suffering. Frankl explained that by surviving his wife, the man had spared her that suffering and in turn had taken it on for her. Here’s what Frankl noted, “He said no word but shook my hand and calmly left my office. In some way, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.”
Lately, I have experienced a shift in the way I see things, especially my Christian faith. In my prayer, I used to repeatedly ask God to eradicate my problems, wounds, shortcomings, and insecurities. To unburden me. “Take them, Lord,” I would plead with Him. As if the Creator himself produced a defective model. I was telling Him, “But I got a lemon!” He must chuckle at my ignorant impertinence. Yes, I have defects. But, slowly I am beginning to realize these perceived defects are meant for me. I don’t need to trade them in for new ones. This is the model I am working with for good reason. His purpose. I now pray for a better understanding as to why I have the particular wounds and pain I carry. I ask for God’s help in figuring out my mission. I ask that He help enlighten me so I can put my weaknesses to use, that they might have greater meaning, according to His plan. Smokey’s death served to make me appreciate my dad in a way I hadn’t before. Simple perspective change, yet a seismic shift in impact. R.I.P. Smokey.