Putting Things in Perspective

Everyone has problems. It’s an unavoidable part of life. Some of us will probably share the same worries or face the same crises. But that’s where the similarity ends. Once exposed to the problem, different people react to them in different ways. Some fall apart, wrecking the rest of their lives in the process. Others manage to barely contain it, undergoing a constant struggle somewhere between success and failure. And others overcome the challenge, achieving mastery not only over it, but over themselves.

What can explain this difference in reactions? Aside from having the willpower or talent necessary to overcome the odds, people who are able to succeed where others fail do so because of another often overlooked reason – their perspective. Where others see problems and catastrophes, they might see growth and opportunities. Sounds crazy, isn’t it? How are you supposed to interpret a car accident as an opportunity? Or a death in the family as a platform for growth? If these are too harsh, there are problems aplenty in our everyday struggles for survival: a horrible boss, an unhappy marriage, money woes and so on.

Against the overwhelming tsunami of problems and negative life events listed above, how does one even go about changing their perspective? If you’re used to seeing things in a certain way, it’s gotta be hard to try to change this, right? I’ll be applying two common elements of physics (yes, you heard me right, it’s the science that powers rockets and drops apples on peoples’ heads) to try to show how we can start on our journey to changing our lives through doing nothing else but changing our mindset.

The first element I’m going to use is Space. When I say space, I don’t mean space like outer space, with aliens and all. I mean space as in the size of something. Our human nature likes to exaggerate the size of things. And sometimes, this includes the size of the problems we face. When your car won’t start and you have to take the train to work, you feel like your life is coming apart at the seams. When your husband argues with you over what to eat for dinner, you feel like your marriage is in shambles. Or maybe you were looking forward to a trip all year, and suddenly you fall ill before the flight and are forced to cancel. Your life’s tough, isn’t it? There’s this vulgar abbreviation people like to use nowadays, called FML. If you don’t know what it is, google it. I’m not going to explain what it is here, except to comment that people who say FML have exaggerated the problems they face from molehills into insurmountable, immovable mountains.

Why do we exaggerate the size of our problems? The reason why we do so is because we have exaggerated something else: ourselves. We have puffed ourselves up with unrealistic expectations. My car should start just because. My marriage has to be argument-free just because. I deserve to go for this trip just because. I, me and myself. If we are self-absorbed, we inflate not only ourselves, but also our expectations, and therefore, our problems. The “bigger” we are in size, the more we expect reality to conform to what we want and how we want things to be. And if you didn’t know already, reality doesn’t give a hoot about you and your expectations. It’s just going to do its own thing, and you had better get with the program or slip into denial.

I said I meant space as in the size of things, right? Consider this: how big are we? How big are we compared to our family? Our town? Our state? Our country? Are we such “big” people that our problems are so catastrophic and world-shattering? I could go further and talk about how significant we are compared to the world, but I think I’ve made my point. How big can our concerns be when compared to the issues plaguing the people around you, the country you live in, or even the world at large? When we are unhappy about it raining when we’re out at the beach, do we ever think about the starving and the homeless, or the war-torn and the raped? If we focus only on ourselves, then of course we have only ourselves for comparison, and our problems seem gigantic and monstrous in strength and size. But when we stop looking inwards and start noticing the environment around us, they shrink rapidly in prominence and significance.

Rule #1: Look beyond yourself. See the world, and know that you (and your problems) are nothing.

The second element I’ll deal with is Time. Everyone knows about time and how precious it is. If you don’t think it’s precious, please read this. The basic gist is: We have limited time to spend on this earth. So we have a very simple choice to make every time we face a problem: we can spend our limited time figuring out how to deal with it, or we can spend that limited time being upset about the problem. However we choose to spend the time, it gets spent and we don’t get that time back. No reload. No second chances.

The above might seem like common sense, but all too often we let ourselves be overcome by our emotions. Why do I have to deal with this? Why do I have this problem and others don’t? And so we waste away precious moments feeling sorry for ourselves and wishing reality were not so. Like I said earlier, reality doesn’t give a hoot. It’ll keep going on by itself, with or without you. Just remember that while we may sit sulking, others in the same position may be drawing up plans to overcome the crisis at hand. We can’t change a lot of things outside ourselves, like the weather, or other people. But we can change how we ourselves react to the outside event. Don’t ask the Why questions above. Ask these questions instead: Am I making the best use of my time right now? Is what I’m doing helping the situation at all? When you take your focus off the fact that you have a problem and start focusing on solving that problem, you’re making far better use of your time than whining and complaining to the world at large.

Rule #2: Time and tide wait for no man. We have the power to choose how we spend our time. Let’s spend this precious, limited resource wisely.

But this isn’t the only aspect of time I want to talk about with regard to perspective. The other aspect is the length of time itself. Think back to a previous event in your life where you were facing an exceptionally big problem, or generally undergoing a tough period. It could be a stressful time at work when there was a seemingly unending stream of backlog to clear. Or it might be when one of your loved ones got a terminal illness. How long ago was this troubled time? One year? Five years? Ten years? Try to imagine the pain and suffering you went through back then.

Can you do it? Try as you might, I bet you can’t fully replicate the trauma you experienced from that past event. Sure, you remember it as a bad time, but however bad the pain was, it eased with the passing of time. The backlog at work would have been cleared eventually. Your loved one would either have recovered or succumbed to the illness, the latter of which would lengthen the painful period with grieving. But even the grief would have subsided given enough time. And now you are here, reading this article and trying to remember the full extent of your suffering.

But you can’t. And because you can’t, therein lies the hope. When you face a problem in your present day, you can use your past experiences as a reminder to see the problem not as an immediate, overwhelming monstrosity, but one in a long spectrum of time, stretching from now into the future. To put it another way, you can ask yourself this: What are the chances that this problem that is giving me so much trouble right now, will still be giving me this same level of trouble one year down the road? Or two years? Five? Ten?

Rule #3: Time heals all wounds. Time healed your past wounds, and time will heal your future wounds. So is your present problem really the end of the world as you know it? Or can you see past your problem to the future beyond?

When we start to see our problems in the bigger scheme of things, we may realize that what we initially thought were crippling, catastrophic crises are actually not really that overwhelming. Sometimes, what may be a problem in the short term may actually become a blessing in the long term. If not for a particular setback, you may never have gained the mindset, experience and drive necessary to succeed in a future endeavor. As someone famous once said (no, not me), “It ain’t over till it’s over”. As long as you have the mental ability to recognize that you’re facing a problem in your life, that also means you have the mental ability to put that problem into perspective, and cut it down to a manageable size.

You may be facing a whole lot of problems right now. Or maybe you’re worried about the future potential problems you might face. Will you use Space and Time to put them into perspective?


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