I was about 10 or 11 years old. Just about that age where you start thinking you understand the world, but still get surprised by new things popping up around each corner. I was visiting my relatives in India and, on this particular day, was riding in a car with one of my local aunts through the sensory hyper-stimulation of New Delhi rush hour.
I had just started getting used to the confusing combination of smells — delicious fried breads and sweets being prepared and sold street-side, mixed with the choking black fumes spurting out of public transport vehicles that were coughing right along with the chain-smoking snack vendors.
What I hadn't quite gotten used to was the regular but still surprising and aggressive knocking on our car windows from street kids begging with great diligence. At that age, I wasn't very socially conscious, but those experiences did invoke a philosophical compassion inside me. It was nothing I understood at any intellectual level, but I knew the feeling was just as sincere as it may have been perceived as cliché. This was certainly well before Slumdog Millionaire.
As I stared into the eyes of one particular beggar girl, waiting for my aunt to lower the car window and give her some change, I somehow knew that she wouldn’t. I didn’t ask her why, but my aunt intuitively looked at me, as if having read my mind, and said something so blatantly obvious that I've never forgotten it.
She looked at me with the gentle and calm seriousness of a mountain-top sage and said:
“Remember, there will always be people in the world better off than you, and there will always be people worse off than you.”
Till this day I’m not sure if that was meant to be an explanation, dare I say defence, for her not acknowledging the beggar girl, but it struck a chord all the same. And over the hundreds of street kids I've interacted with since, over multiple trips to India, I've realised that there is no explanation or defence for the plight of those kids, and there will never be one.
I've also seen street kids and beggars in awful circumstances in many more places around the world too, and have contributed to a lot of charities and organisations to help them. Generally speaking I do care, but thinking of those kids does almost nothing to ease the pain of my own circumstances when I’m in the thick of some hurt.
That may sound unnecessarily cold, but there’s a point to me telling you this. And there is hope on the other side of that point.
Over the past couple of months, rather than stark poverty, I've been confronted with people I know much closer to home suffering: serious chronic, and in some cases terminal, illnesses; several relationships and even marriages, built over lifetimes longer than I've been alive, falling to pieces; and business and financial disasters putting them on the brink of being homeless.
There are many other such circumstances I can reference, and yet all of them, including the above, may be completely meaningless to you. You see, our pain is still our own and very much real. And the miserable mind is an oddly stubborn beast when it decides it wants to put its own suffering on a shit-holier-than-thou pedestal.
A lot of people make the mistake of trying to harness the power of perspective by saying, “Jeez, I'd hate to be Willy right now, his life sucks way more than mine!” and then expecting to feel better automatically as a result of this framing.
Our mind simply doesn't work that way, just as thinking about starving street kids doesn't help us feel better about losing a job or the love of our life. If it did, we may well be narcissistically delusional about our own life success, or completely overwhelmed with uncontrollable levels of sympathy for the plight of those worse off than us.
“Perspective in theory of cognition is the choice of a context or a reference (or the result of this choice) from which to sense, categorize, measure or codify experience, cohesively forming a coherent belief, typically for comparing with another.” — Wikipedia
But if the comparative point of reference is too far off from our own circumstances, it becomes un-relatable, and therefore not very useful when we're actually hurting, no matter how simple or light that pain may actually be in comparison.
We may still feel compassion for starving kids, victims of great socio-political atrocities, or the hundreds of thousands of cancer patients fighting an impossible battle every day, but it doesn't necessarily ease the pain of an unexpected separation, losing a job or a family member suffering a serious illness, even if it’s less dramatic and hopeless than cancer.
So what is the damn point of perspective then?
It’s here that we remember my aunt’s words, “There will always be someone in the world better off than you, and there will always be someone worse off than you.”
Perspective is not something we should just dip into when we're consumed in our own misery, but something we must constantly practice as a way of being, to prevent becoming consumed in the first place.
Remembering to maintain a broad and dynamic perspective at all times is how we strengthen our defences against the real threat of the inevitable lows of life: getting lost in our own circumstances, and feeding jealousy and resentment towards, and cold detachment from, others.
Maintaining perspective helps us always be mindful of the complete futility of judging one’s own predicament. It helps us surrender to occasionally being in pain as a natural, universal part of being human. And also to remember, in moments of ecstatic victory, that even those highs are relative and transient.
In doing so — in surrendering to the inevitability and universality of pain without comparing it to anyone else’s, better or worse — we can begin to transcend the more optional suffering that tends to come with it.
And instead of isolating ourselves to the darkest corners of our own suffering, we can access the greatest utility that perspective actually offers us: to know that we never really suffer alone, and we don't have to deal with our pain alone either.