From where we are looking, what is our view of the world?
Being six-foot-five, I’ve always viewed the world from a slightly higher perspective than most people. For instance, I see the tops of furniture and people’s heads, and I can see farther in a crowd. No big deal. But that each of us perceives the world and other people from different perspectives, sometimes dramatically so due to our unique physical and mental endowments and upbringing, it is a big deal.
Differences in perspective and perception, with its attendant communication challenges, is at the root of prejudices, disagreements and abuses that can provoke violence, even war. I selected this image for contemplation because it depicts the nature of perception in the context of a whole system, the part-to-whole relationship. Here, individual drops of oil are seen moving in relation to one another on the surface of water. Although the composition of the drops is identical, they are each unique in size, shape and tonality due to their position relative to the light source and each other. If they had eyes, each drop would perceive a “reality” different from the others, so different we would not be surprised to hear them proclaim such things as “I’m bigger than you!” “I was here first!” “You’re blocking my light!”
As individual drops, they’re looking from and only considering self, defining and ordering their world from a narrow and limited point of view. Given our five senses, we do the same thing. Eyes, for instance, evolved at the top of our bodies so we could survey the immediate physical and social surroundings. But we also have brain-minds that have the capacity to learn about and envision systems that can only be detected with instruments. For instance, the Hubble and James Webb telescopes are expanding our perception of the universe dramatically, challenging us to shift our perspective on who we are and where we are. Consider:
- The big bang occurred about 14 billion years ago, giving birth to the universe.
- 75% of the universe is dark energy; 25% is dark matter; 5% is the matter we’re familiar with.
- It takes one million years for the light from the center of our galaxy to reach the Earth.
- The Milky Way galaxy is 100,000 light-years (distance light travels in a year) across and 1,000 light-years thick.
- There are more than 200 billion stars in our galaxy.
- Nearly 99% of our solar system’s mass is in the sun.
- Our solar system orbits the Milky Way every 200 million years—at a speed of 570,000 mph.
- Earth resides 25,000 light-years from the center of the Milky Way.
- Light from the sun takes 8 minutes to reach us. We never see the sun in the present moment.
- The Carina Nebula lies 7,500 light years from Earth. It’s 140 light-years wide.
- There are at least 125 billion + galaxies in the universe.
- Star V838 is 600,000 times brighter than the sun. Its size would engulf the solar system out to the orbit of Jupiter.
- In the center of the Sombrero galaxy there’s a black hole with a mass equal to a billion suns.
- Hubble has imaged 10,000 galaxies in the Fornax constellation, which is 13 billion light years from here.
- Galaxies 300 million light-years from us are moving away at about 16.5 million mph—and the expansion is speeding up.
- By one astronomer’s calculation, “There are tens of billions of potentially habitable planets in the Milky Way galaxy alone.”
Occasionally, we’re reminded that the universe is vast and beautiful. But for many that perspective is fleeting, not very relevant. The quantum reality and cosmic immensity seem to have nothing to do with earning a living, parenting, managing work or getting an education. Except for certain circumstances, we tend to keep our focus narrow, on what’s in front of us.
Narrowly focused perceiving has had, and continues to have, survival value. It’s how living systems survive, grow and reproduce. But on December 7th, 1972 the astronauts of Apollo 17 opened our eyes to what the Earth looks like from space. Overnight, our perspective changed. An imagined image suddenly became visible, real—an enormous blue body floating in the immensity of space, appearing as a whole system. And we realized that beneath the clouds, ourselves and everything we know has transpired and is unfolding.
How to respond to such immensity? What are we to think? How does it affect our perception of ourselves? Of God? Of the future? Astronomy magazines and images from space online always increase my sense of wonder and appreciation. Given the context of what’s going on over our heads, personal, social and political challenges seem trivial. And in the context of evolution, we’re a very young species, barely out of the womb, just opening our eyes to where we are, struggling to learn and adapt to each other and changing conditions through trial and error. Combined, these perspectives position us in a place that recommends patience and compassion rather than fear, confusion or pessimism with respect to the future.
A broader perspective can contribute to the management and healing of negative consequences due to conflicting perceptions. The Congress of the United States provides an excellent example of the consequences of head-in-the-sand narrow perspectives. Dysfunction, divisiveness and stalemate occurs in a living system when the members vigorously champion and cling to their own or a group’s perspectives rather than reason together to discover the best, most workable solution to challenges. Eventually, self-centeredness fails at every level because it serves a narrow and limited perspective relative to the greater whole. Unlike the oil bubbles in the above image, by consciously deciding who we are, the nature of our relationship to everyone else and the planet and how we will use our energy, we create the world of our experience.
The impossibility of arriving at ultimate formulations of reality does not represent a defeat for the inquiring mind. It is only final assertions that are suspect, not the process of knowing itself. For we each have a valid and important perspective on what is. And to the extent that we can acknowledge the partiality of this perspective, what we say stays clear and true.
Joanna Macy, Ecologist, general systems theorist
Photography Monographs (Select a book. Click on in it to turn pages)