The View from Higher Ground
I wanted to see the sunset one evening last week, but I went outside too late. At least I thought I did. I was disappointed when I headed out to my front yard and looked toward the western sky, where I can so often see deep oranges and yellows slipping behind trees and rooftops. But that night, the color was already washing away, pale gray clouds taking its place. I still had another 15 or 20 minutes before the chicken I was cooking for dinner would be done, though, so I walked a ways down the canal up to the little footbridge that sometimes offers a different view. And there it was—the remains of a soft pastel sky in front of me, even reflected in the dark green water of the canal.
I’ve thought of those few moments several times since then, using them as a reminder of what can appear when we change our perspective. I need a frequent prompt like this because I tend to forget that there are many ways to see things. You’d think I wouldn't after all these years, but I still find myself falling into a funk because I’m standing in one place—literally and figuratively—and viewing my life from that spot only. I also know that it’s not an easy habit to change. If I am feeling that I have too much to do, for example, and none of it is all that interesting to me, I’ve been known to hold on to that angst for the whole day. Often, I don’t even want to work hard enough to force myself to “feel better.” I almost literally dig in my heels in my determined misery. On days when I’m feeling more resilient, I know that simply trying a different angle can change the whole tenor of the day.
My week was still pretty much the same in its essence—but I was looking at it from a different vantage point.
This happened recently. I was tired, hadn’t slept all that well, and I felt discouraged by my lack of progress in sticking with a writing schedule. It’s a scene I’ve re-played thousands of times in my life. I start with a general sense of not deserving to call myself a writer and run a little film about how I should give it up, how I don’t have the tenacity to complete a whole book project, and then on to what will I do with my retirement if I’m not going to be a writer? It’s probably pointless to say here that none of this is logical. It’s just the view from where I’m standing at the time. But if I move a little to the left, or I stand on some metaphorical hill, or I think of other ways to imagine myself, my thoughts actually do start to change. It’s not a total shift, but if I view myself with a bit more empathy and objectivity, I can see immediately that I’ve set pretty unrealistic goals. And that usually makes me feel better about myself. Right now, in the midst of a really busy work schedule, I’m proud of myself for writing two or three times a week. If I don’t observe this from the position of a critic, but instead a friend, I’m actually able to pat myself on the back for what I have done, rather than what I haven’t.
I’ve also realized that intentionally changing my viewpoint has made me feel better overall during the pandemic. For a while, every Monday seemed the same, and I started each week from a low spot in the road. Eventually, it got more and more difficult to get out of bed at the start of the week, when all the days ahead looked gray and dank. A combination of meditation and therapy have pushed me to look at it from a different angle. I started thinking about how I could help change things—in my house and family, and with my co-workers. I decided to stop sighing deeply at the beginning of every meeting and started just trying to connect with at least one person in that Hollywood Squares-looking Zoom screen that was facing me. I consciously focused on how cute the dogs were being instead of feeling sorry for myself because I can't move around freely right now. This new view didn’t make anything go away—and my week was still pretty much the same in its essence—but I was looking at it from a different vantage point. I could see some things I’d forgotten about—the volunteer daffodils that grow by my mailbox every spring, the way it feels to read a good book, the love I feel for so many of the people with whom I work.
Looking at things from a different spot doesn’t change everything. I get it. But sometimes it really does give me a new glimpse of my world, and it lets me rise above my own bad attitude in a way that surprises me.