Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Think perspective

(Published in Business Standard on November 3, 2012)

Earlier this week, when every reporter in the US was leaning into the wind in New York to yell into the camera about Sandy the Hurricane, a French friend put up a Facebook update about how oh yeah, Sandy the Hurricane had actually ripped through the Caribbean before it arrived at the hallowed shores of New York. At about the same time, a Canadian friend wrote an update about how Sandy the Hurricane was shortly going to cross the US border in Maine into Canada. Those reporters had almost nothing to say about Sandy’s effect on Haiti or on Saskatchwan, though it’s also true that Saskatchwan is a difficult name to yell into the camera. Anyway, the point is that the US has a long shadow, and if you happen to live in it, the sad truth is, um, who are you, again?

But then, most of us react to world events in this manner of an overworked air traffic controller. If it’s not in my airspace, it’s not my problem. When it does hit my airspace, it’s a matter of life and death, it’s an apocalypse, it’s a crisis the like of which you haven’t seen. The only way this is going to get sorted is if we give it our undivided attention.

Kids are like this a lot. When they find themselves unsatisfied by the attention they’re getting, they will do what it takes to get a more acceptable quota. My two-year-old niece recently ratted out her four-year-old brother (who hadn’t drunk his milk) to get her parents’ full attention. It was a bit of a shocker, though at the same time I was kind of thrilled to see her turn into a tiny little cute-as-a-button Machiavelli.

Perspective—the notion that your experience is only one tiny section of a much longer, much more varied, much more interesting thread—is an affliction that mind-boggling numbers of people remain quite safe from all the way through their lives. Nothing steals emotional pitch from a situation like taking a look at someone else’s situation, which takes some effort, and kind of puts you in your place, which isn’t always the place you would have chosen, and is therefore not a popular move.

But if you have made peace with the idea that you’re about as significant as a boil on the butt of a blue whale which itself is the boil on the butt of a tiny little intergalactic bacterium and so on, and are actually eager to maintain your grip on that fact, there’s a whole world out there to help you do it. A failsafe way to gain perspective is to listen to other people.

That’s what I’m doing currently in Goa, at a vast hotel that looks like a little village with pointy roofs—I keep expecting a (well-heeled) druid to pop out any minute. As I write this, just before the first session of the Think festival, Goa is cloudy and damp from the skirt hem of cyclone Neelam, the hotel grounds are filling with speakers and listeners (collectively and a little lamely known as ‘Thinkers’), and from Friday morning, for three days, I get to sit in a hall and listen to people talk about their experiences from all walks of life, from music to journalism to diplomacy to technology. I think of it like health food, or vitamin supplements, for the mind.

It remains to be seen how good the line-up is, but anyone who likes TED Talks is likely to enjoy this. I’ll let you know how it went—watch this space.

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