One of the major problems of our hectic, fast-paced modern life is that we are very prone to lose our sense of perspective.
As we become so caught up in rushing from here to there working, running errands, transporting the kids, looking after sick relatives, etc, we consider ourselves fortunate just to be able to keep track of what we have done and what remains for us to yet accomplish. While this in itself does not make us egocentric in the common sense of the word, it does present a threat to our well-being that we need to guard against.
For each of us, we are the most important person in the world. With very few exceptions, the challenges we have to face and things we have to accomplish are usually at the forefront of our thoughts, feelings and actions. With the exception of our family and close friends, everybody else we see and encounter during the course of our day may seem like so many extras in a movie: they have no lines and don’t affect the outcome of the plot; they simply fill up background space.
Ideally, this type of habitual focus on the self is broken up by the feelings of love and compassion we have for others or a sense of gratitude for all we have in our lives. Art, in its various forms, and the magnificent and wondrous beauty of nature also serve to distract us from a too shortsighted focus. But the very human fact remains that getting stuck at a traffic light takes on much greater significance to us in our daily lives than hearing about a hundred people being killed halfway around the world.
Because of this tendency to focus more upon that which is immediate, our lives can get out of balance. Our problems of daily living tend to dominate our thoughts and energy, particularly when those issues are troublesome. Recurring problems, things we don’t know how to resolve and are still searching for answers for, tend to pile up. Sometimes the situation is more acute, an accumulation of minor matters happening at once or sometimes it can be fewer issues that we have been unable to resolve over a longer period of time. Whether chronic or acute, this type of stress can wear us down, hamper our abilities to function well in our lives, destroy our happiness and lead to low moods, pessimism and outright depression.
Whether we find ourselves in this state periodically or as a low-grade chronic condition, it is helpful to frame the problem as one of perspective. Here is what I recommend: sit comfortably in a quiet space where you are unlikely to be disturbed for ten minutes. Think about the average person in the world. What is life like today for the average person living on the planet Earth? Well, they probably don’t have enough to eat. They probably don’t have easy or reliable access to clean water. They probably have little or no access to adequate medical care. They are probably living in inadequate shelter. They probably don’t have economic security or educational opportunities for their children. They may well be in physical danger of assault due to religious or ethnic persecution.
Now, if comparing your life to theirs makes you feel a little uncomfortable, guilty or selfish, that’s ok. Guard against falling into the trap of feeling too bad and thereby making it all about you again. Everybody on earth has his or her own brand of challenges to face. It just turns out that yours may not be as taxing as that of the average person. The point is to come to the place where you can think Gee, I have a lot of problems in my life, but they are not nearly as horrendous as I had previously credited. Actually, I’m one pretty fortunate individual! This realization in itself should help lift you out of whatever low mood you were feeling and energize you in some small way to take a fresh crack at working your situation through.
If you don’t feel a sense of relief from doing this, give it a few trials to sink in. Often, the best time to apply this type of insight is at 4:00AM when you are laying wide awake in the darkness feeling the full impact of whatever it is that is troubling you. In fact, anytime during the course of your day that you find yourself feeling anxious or low is a good time to give your relative position on the planet a thought.
While employing this technique may not specifically address whatever the problem it is you are facing, it does help lift your mood and prepare you to mobilize your available resources more effectively. If thinking such thoughts inspires you to reach out in some fashion to those less fortunate than you, so much the better. Research on happiness very clearly points out that applying yourself to the greater good of humanity plays an important role in creating personal happiness.
While some of us were shamed as children by being compared to those less fortunate (remember all those poor kids in China who would have jumped at the chance to eat your fried liver) don’t let that stand in your way. Whatever happened to you as a child was then and this is now. If you have an opportunity to make your life, and the lives of those around you, happier and more constructive, you owe it to yourself and those around you to take it. That, after all, only makes sense.
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