“We see from where we stand.” ~ Haitian Proverb
A few weeks ago, we touched on the topic of memories; in how they are triggered through our senses of taste and smell. Memory is one of the many topics studied by behavioural psychologist Daniel Kahneman, and reported on in his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow. Memory colours how we see.
Krista Tippett interviewed Kahneman for the On Being podcast. What stood out for me in their conversation was how Kahneman described the difference between the remembering self and the experiencing self.
The remembering self is that part of us with recollections of past experiences. Memories are our stories of how things were and are always selective, missing important details or context. Here’s an example from my life.
I remember my 16th year as being a sad and lonely one. Our family, which included my parents and three younger siblings, had moved to a new city, leaving friends and extended family behind. Within a year, my parents separated and our family was literally split in half. My brother and I stayed with my Dad in the new city and my Mom and two sisters moved an hour away. I’ll spare you any more details but it was difficult.
Ten years ago, I received a wonderful gift. My best friend from that time returned to me the letters I had written to her during that year. Through those letters, I discovered many details that I’d completely forgotten. Yes, I was sometimes sad and lonely, but I was also a goofy and funny teenage girl, with many activities and interests, just trying to fit into her new surroundings. Those letters painted a different picture for me of that year. They reframed my memories.
The experiencing self is that part of us that lives life in the present moment. And, it’s no wonder that our memories are selective because our everyday experiences are as well. We can only take in so much, and so we focus on what we think is most important. That’s why we sometimes miss the elephant (or gorilla) in the room.
What we think is important has been shaped by our past experiences, preconceived ideas, and likes and dislikes. So, every person experiences a moment differently, sees it from a different vantage point. This explains why siblings often remember events from the past differently.
Check your Vantage Point
Where we stand, physically or mentally, is our vantage point. The dictionary defines this as “a position or place that affords a wide or advantageous perspective.” Synonyms include: perspective, angle, slant, and viewpoint. Our vantage point is unique to us. We always see only a portion of what is really there from any particular position or angle. All it takes is a subtle change in vantage point in order to see in a new way.
Besides physical vantage points, there are also mental ones, our perspectives on things. There will always be people with different perspectives than ours; some will be more informed than others, depending on their experience and knowledge base. This is why it’s important to approach life with humility and openness to new ways of seeing. Life is dynamic and the information and situations are always changing. By all means, stick to your values but your stories about how things are should change when new information becomes available.
In theory, it should be fascinating to learn how and why someone else thinks and experiences things differently than we do. Our perspective is valid but others are as well. We don’t have to agree with other interpretations of reality but we can get curious as to why others might think a certain way. There’s usually an emotional component at the core.
Learning to look at things from different perspectives is the foundation for a life of love and empathy.
Much of my work has to do with the experiencing self. I recommend practices, sometimes photographic, that help bring more sensory and emotional awareness to our present day experience. We also notice how our mind can get in the way. These practices help us to be better see-ers. I believe that by bringing more awareness to the experiencing self, we also remember more clearly.
For this week, just notice your own and others’ perspectives or vantage points. Notice when you automatically write someone off for having a different viewpoint. You don’t have to take on their view but you can try to understand where they’re coming from or why they might think the way they do. Be curious. Ask good questions. Get to the emotional core of their beliefs.
Learn about street epistemology, a set of tools to help you have difficult conversations.
Restrain from offering an opinion. One of my favourite phrases right now is that opinions are overrated. Anyone can spout an opinion on anything and it’s just that, an opinion. An important practice for me has been to realize that it’s not always necessary to offer an opinion. Restrain yourself and practice saying, “I don’t really know.”
Investigate your own beliefs. Ask yourself what you might be missing or what you still need to know. Decide which experts are worth your attention and learn from many experts before making conclusions. Become aware of your blindspots. Resources for doing just this are below.
Change your literal vantage point. Photography has always taught me that there are an infinite number of vantage points from which to view something. If you can’t move your subject, you can always move your camera. Changing your vantage point changes what you see through the viewfinder. Practice this week by photographing something from as many different perspectives as possible.
Media literacy has been a subject of much interest to me in the past year and I’ve discovered many wonderful resources, which I share in these posts - Where are your Blindspots? and Be Aware before you Share.
Listen: On Being Interview with Daniel Kahneman, Why We Contradict Ourselves and Confound Each Other