On the Importance, and Meaning, of Perspective
Originally published May/June 2007
Have you had this experience: you’re talking with a friend or colleague and learn that the person is dealing with a huge problem (life threatening illness, loss of a job, loss of a spouse or a marriage), and you walk away wondering how you can let seemingly trivial things get you down? The point, of course, is that such encounters give us a sense of perspective. That is what happens to me each time I volunteer with my favorite nonprofit, an Israeli organization called Shatil.
“Shatil” means seedling, in Hebrew. Over 20 years ago, it was established by its parent organization, The New Israel Fund, to work with other nonprofits and community groups that are working for peace and social justice in Israel. Shatil provides these groups consulting and technical assistance in a variety of areas: working with their boards, fund raising, advocating for their cause with the government, getting covered in the media, seeking change in the Israeli Knesset (its parliament). My role is to bring to Shatil’s consultants the latest thinking from the United States in these and related areas. And sometimes I have the wonderful opportunity of working with a Shatil client.
As noted, the experience of working with Shatil’s staff and clients is one that continually gives me a clearer perspective on life and issues in America. Why? Because the work of seeking peace and social justice in Israel is at once noble, necessary, and overwhelmingly difficult. Two examples from my most recent visit in May will explain:
There are many other examples in Israel, too many to mention, of people trying to do truly heroic work and having to deal with horrific pressures, obstacles and threats. As I mentioned, one of my roles with Shatil is to bring its staff and clients some approaches and methods that work in the US, and I’ve done that on each of my four annual visits. The challenge is, how to bring American methods that are relevant to the Israeli experience, when the social and political conflicts and rhetoric in our country tend to be far less extreme than in Israel? (The same could be asked about exporting American ideas and methods to many other countries plagued with violence: Iraq, Somalia, the Darfur region of Sudan, etc.)
Yes, I bring to Shatil some examples of collaboration among leaders who have totally different ideologies—Ted Kennedy, for instance, teaming up with Orin Hatch, on an issue they both care about—and the methods they use to find common ground and build a political constituency for their approach. And such examples sometimes help. The difference, of course, is that the stakes involved for Kennedy and Hatch are nowhere near the stakes involved for people living in countries and cultures that are plagued with ongoing tribal violence.
Visits like these can give us a necessary sense of perspective. Most Americans feel very free to believe what we choose, to befriend whomever we like, without fear of retribution. Having a sense of perspective can help us avoid upset over life’s daily frustrations; will we actually be upset by some minor annoyance tomorrow (or even remember it)?
There’s a flip side to this perspective issue, however. Yes, perspective gives us a kind of balance, a needed reminder to let go of trivial slights, to forgive and move on. But many bad things happen in our land that are, in fact, not at all trivial. When outrageous things occur, it’s not perspective that’s needed—it’s a strong voice and sometimes united action. Here’s one recent example:
On April 17, the day after 32 students were gunned down at Virginia Tech, talk show host Neal Boortz ridiculed the slain students for not defending themselves. “This is just a great indication to me of how far advanced we are with the wussification of America,” Boortz told his radio audience. “What a nation of candy asses we have become. I mean, not only do they [the students] stand there, in terror, waiting to be executed without doing a damn thing to protect themselves, except maybe hiding behind a desk.” When a caller objected, and told Boortz he should apologize to the Tech students, Boortz responded with a comment not fit to print.
Yes, perspective is a wonderful thing. A healthy does of it will probably help us live longer. But real perspective isn’t about letting everything go; perspective is about separating the trivial from the important. “Don’t sweat the small stuff” is a great saying, but there is some “big stuff” going on in our wonderful country, stuff that requires us to speak out and act. We each need to decide what the big stuff is, of course. When I hear of well known people whose words and actions threaten the civility and decency we need in our society (as Boortz’s comments did), that crosses the line for me. Where is the line for you?
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Russ Linden is the principal of Russ Linden & Associates, a management consultancy based in Charlottesville, VA. He is a management educator and consultant, specializing in organizational peformance and change methods for those in the public and nonprofit sectors.
He has written four books; the most recent is Working Across Boundaries, which you may order by clicking here .