Sunday, February 17, 2008

Perspective: Time and Space

Begun before flu laid me low and something else made me, for at least a time yet to be bounded, utterly transcendent, this is a contemplation of at least one thing that made the latter possible.

Perspective is really nothing more than another word for distance. Too close to a thing, you have no appreciation for that thing as a whole or for its place in the larger picture. The holistic view requires distance. There really is no substitute.

Those same rules of perspective that apply to objects in space also apply to events in time. Time is distance. When I began to contemplate this analogy, I briefly thought that chronological perspective proceeded in only one direction, that we could only move further away from events. But that's not true. Events in the past, yes, we move away from. But there are also events that we anticipate, move closer to and through, before beginning to move away again. A job change, retirement, a young adult's departure from the protection of our roof. These events we move toward and past in time like a comet swinging through perigee. The temporal loss of perspective that ensues can be just as debilitating in its approach as any corresponding spatial myopia.

For years now, I've been marveling at the advantages in temporal perspective conveyed by the simple act of waking up each day. Unless your life is just miserable, few would argue that waking is preferable to not, yet too often people complain of "growing old" without giving sufficient attention to the advantages conveyed by simply growing older. I prefer to focus on the positive. I can still remember when it finally became possible to confront the utterly clueless without being angry at them for their cluelessness.

But back to the idea of temporal perspective. Nearly always, there's some very personal realization behind these posts. Today (and the weeks since I wrote "today") is no different. More and more, I notice that events and situations that would have pegged my anxiety meter in youth merely tweak my curiosity now. In that sense, I think life in general is like skydiving to me. Initially, the adrenaline rush was nearly overwhelming every time I left the door. Now, I am hardly ever more calm or at peace than perched with one foot on the tiny tab of metal known as "the camera step," clinging by one hand to the side of an aircraft in flight. This is the peace that comes with experience, with temporal perspective. But skydiving isn't behind this post. Relationships are.

Younger, most of us are yearning for permanence. It's the standard by which we assay new relationships. "Will this last?" "Is this the person I'm meant to spend the rest of my life with?" It's the standard by which we value relationships because we don't have the experience yet to know that it's a false standard. I do believe that those relationships exist, that there is such a thing as a soulmate. But I also believe that there is value, much value, in the other relationships that cross our path as well. And I believe that few find their real soulmate in any given lifetime. Most I know who've thought so, perhaps myself included, have learned eventually that forever is more elusive than they thought. More importantly, they can also learn that this isn't necessarily a bad thing. I say can. Not all do. Some will pine the rest of their lives away. Some, I think, long for the pining more than the permanence itself--the perennially melancholy.

This is not me. I am passionate. A friend once told me that he envied that passion. The price was greater when sadness rolled around, but the highs were commensurately lofty as well. The trick with experience, perspective we're calling it today, is to allow it to translate anxiety into excitement, petrification into calm, to modulate the sine wave of pleasure and pain that Gibran tells us are inseparable aspects of the same experience, but without flattening it entirely. Perspective.

Perspective enables us to better value things. Experience enables us to better value things even when they are at hand. I've often laughed at the saying that "Old age and treachery will win out over youth and enthusiasm every time." But while I've laughed, I've also been well aware that under the mucousy surface of most truisms, there resides a pearl of truth. "Old age" though has negative connotations. More accurate to substitute "Experience," because that's what it's really about. Experience enables us to know that the end of the world and our own disappointment are not as closely tied as we are born thinking. Knowing that if something doesn’t work out, the world won’t end, can give us the courage to try things we otherwise wouldn’t. Grasping early the theme of “Ozymandias”-- that permanence of almost any sort is an illusion--shouldn’t be devastating; it should be freeing. It should encourage us to live in, love in, appreciate the moment, knowing that when the moment passes the memory remains.

I have known friends who have plunged into depression over a loss of some sort--emotional, monetary, professional. I have, more than once in my life, done the same. But I'm learning, slowly, to imagine my way into a better perspective. I do believe in fate. I don't believe in coincidence. And believing in fate means, to a certain extent, believing that some things can be foretold, yet cannot be changed. It's a delicate balance, frequently explored in literature that dares to tackle it. Which visions granted us are inevitable, and which are granted us as agents of their own destruction, that in the granting of the vision we are given the key to banishing the reality, changing what is to come. Therein lies the paradox: if to come, then to come; our knowledge and ensuing action changed nothing, avoided nothing. Read The Crossing. McCarthy has thought about these things long and hard.

The point, before I digressed, was to be that if we could project ourselves backward a week, a month, a year, 20 years and imagine that a gypsy had told us then that our path would lead us to the place we stand, what would we change? Frequently, I think our answer might be, "Nothing at all. I would not forego an instant of my life as lived to avoid this momentary melancholy if in doing so I should also forego the elation that is its twin. Nothing at all, except, perhaps, to have been more aware in the moment, more fully immersed, less tentative, more willing to suck the very marrow from the bone of happiness that fate had thrust into my hands."

Don't misunderstand. Not all things are like this. I could easily wish changing lanes at the wrong time undone. But not walking a path for a time holding a hand. Not caressing a face. Not daring to love. Not those things. And it's those things this post is about. About the value of perspective. About knowing that, yes, the hand gone is like a limb lost. The face withdrawn is like finding the air suddenly sucked from a room in which we can no longer breathe. But the world does not end. The value of perspective is that we are not paralyzed with fear that the face that lights our world and makes our heart sing may not always be there. Rather, we can accept that it may not (I won't say will not because there is always the chance, slim though it may be, that it will). And rightly done, that accepting doesn't cause us to hold a part of our heart in reserve out of fear, but to commit the whole to each moment, knowing that only the heart fully consumed in the flames of a pure passion can rise from its own ashes like a young Phoenix.

So, what is this all about? It's about a willingness to embrace uncertainty and about the role of perspective in that willingness and in the embrace itself. The value of distance, spatial or temporal, is perspective. The value of experience is the acquired ability to maintain perspective at close quarters and in a moment itself. Holding that face in my hands, the moment is the moment. It doesn't depend for its beauty on the likelihood that I'll hold it that way again. Its beauty isn't lessened by the chance that I may not. I hope I will. I refuse to fear that I won't. Either way, the moment is wondrous.

I hope I will.