‘Seeing’ from a different perspective

TV shows, movies, books, newspapers, songs, gossip: We use narratives to make sense of our surroundings, to understand our place in the world and the roles we play to the people in our lives. We also get caught up in our stories. We overlay them onto everyone and everything.

Mark Twain’s "The Mysterious Stranger" is one of my favorite short stories. In it, an angel Twain sarcastically named Satan (this is not THE Satan but his nephew – also named Satan – who  has not fallen from grace) comes to earth and spends time trying to teach the ways of the universe to a boy.

In an effort to give the boy a sense of man's importance from an angel's perspective Satan offers an analogy of a red spider and an elephant.

“Here is a red spider, not so big as a pin’s head. Can you imagine an elephant being interested in him – caring whether he is happy or isn’t, or whether he is wealthy or poor, or whether his sweetheart returns his love or not, or whether his mother is sick or well, or whether he is looked up to in society or not, or whether his enemies will smite him or his friends desert him, or whether his hopes will suffer blight or his political ambitions fail, or whether he shall die in the bosom of his family or neglected and despised in a foreign land? These things can never be important to the elephant; they are nothing to him; he cannot shrink his sympathies to the microscopic size of them. Man is to me as the red spider is to the elephant.”

The stories we tell may help us navigate through life, but sometimes a head full of expectations can get in the way and prevent us from seeing what's actually there. To illustrate this point I offer the following thought experiment. Try to forget about the specifics that grab your attention every day.

Forget about things like your favorite foods or your favorite songs. Instead, focus on broad strokes like movement, sound or texture. How might life be experienced this way? Forgetting about specifics and reorganizing the world through more general senses might offer a peek into the different kinds of experiences that make up the many little universes around us.

Even with all of their creepy eyes, spiders can't see much more than changes in light and changes in motion. Elephants navigate using smell and hearing more than sight, and did you know that they listen with their feet? In recent years researchers have come to believe that elephants use their feet like built-in seismic detectors to decode distant noise and vocalizations.

What if we could forget, or push aside just for a bit, the words and stories that rule our days and house our expectations? What if, instead, we could just feel the waves as we move through the water or experience the heat of the sun on our shoulders without putting it into words for a moment? Would life seem different?

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