Monday, October 28, 2019


The most important perspective to be able to take is second-person equal.

I'm a writer so I spend a lot of time thinking about perspectives. The same scene reads vastly differently from a first-person present-tense perspective versus a third-person past-tense perspective.

That we have perspectives at all is a mystery, for perspective is another way of saying consciousness and the hard problem of consciousness is really hard. That you observe is an astounding thing that has no currently known explanation in physical, observable phenomenon. No one understands how your brain turns neurotransmitters and synapses into you.*

But what we do with those perspectives is even more astounding. We start, at some point in our early lives, considering the first person perspective: our own. We see ourselves, for the first time in our lives, as an "I" in that we can name our desires and actions. "I want," is a statement of perspective.

And at some point, maybe when we utter our first word, our perspective has grown to include the existence of a second person. Mamma or pappa or nanna or geegee or whomever you identified with your first word became your second perspective.

Then, after language skills have developed sufficiently to receive the concept, we're introduced to the third person, someone we are only told about by someone with us. Santa Claus or a relative never met are virtually the same in the mind of a child who has just learned the concept of a third person perspective.

From there, though, it tends to accelerate quickly, especially for readers. From those three starting perspectives there is an infinite variation of ways to take them. We've already hit first-present and third-past, so we can add tense, but there's also distance. Is it a third-person near perspective (as if the camera were over the shoulder of the character)? Or is it third-person omniscient (with the narrator flitting from mind to mind at will)?

As we grow we tend to settle into the most comfortable perspectives. This is normal. After a period of huge growth in connections, our brains suddenly shed lots of extraneous pathways, once in early childhood and once in later adolescence. After periods of intense discovery our brains then choose the most useful pathways to focus on, and discard the rest. Our brains use between twenty and twenty-five percent of our body's energy despite being five percent the mass. Efficiency is a big problem and it's solved by looking for homeostasis. Whatever neural pathways lead to the least disruption are prioritized. These are the patterns that get baked into our behavior. These are the perspectives that we stop questioning after a while. They become the default.

But here's the kicker. Unless you learn to take the perspective of another person, as fully as you are able, it is almost impossible to learn.

The double-bind is this: unless we expend lots of neurological energy (i.e. emotional labor) we can't take a new perspective, but without expending that energy there's no way we can find more efficient pathways that could ultimately be more beneficial.

It's easy to default to what's comfortable. Usually a lot of first-person past (I should have done that thing already, damnit!) or second-person present imperative (move, IDIOT!) or third-person future (they're gonna get IT!). Not much first person present. Not a lot of just being.

And that's rough because that's usually the most efficient perspective, the most beneficial neural pathways. If we're running the perspective of what our past self should have done or what the person across from us is supposed to be doing or what someone we don't know might do we have absolutely zero control over that situation. That's wasted energy. Your brain is supposed to be efficient, but it isn't very smart. It just churns away (I shoulda done this, you're doing it wrong, they can't figure it out).

There's another double-bind though. In order to really take the first-person present perspective, to really be here and present in this moment instead of scattered across immutable time, you have to learn to give up all your other perspectives and take someone else's.

Your brain really doesn't like this because all of the pathways, the patterns that were baked into us as babies and children, feel like the self. These are the neurological bones and sinew of the ego. They are the stories that we've told ourselves since before we understood what stories are, so they feel like our marrow. Giving up these old stories feels like dying. Your brain responds with a panicked firing of the fight-or-flight response because core systems are being challenged.

Or that's what happens the first time. It gets way less traumatic as you get used to it. It gets to be quite fun, even, because of the learning it can unlock. But the first time it feels like your heart is breaking and you'll do anything you can to stop it. And, like chicken pox, it's way better if you get it out of the way as a child.

This moment of taking another perspective is when you see someone else as having an interior life that is equally valid and complex and mysterious and beautiful and melancholy and unnamable as yours. It is a second-person present tense equal perspective (you too?).

The number of your own pathways you need to willfully shed in order to make space in your brain for the concept of another who is just as flawed and just as uniquely perfect as you will affect the intensity of the fight-or-flight response. So if you just have one pattern challenged, one perspective is taken and replaced with a person, that is a terrifying, but possible experience. But when it feels like every pattern you've developed to get into your adult life is suddenly in question, things can get intense.

Perhaps you've heard of this phenomenon by another name: male fragility (or white fragility or cis fragility or ableist fragility, you get the idea). If you have somehow gotten into adult life without having to take the perspective of women or people of color or LGBTQ folk or neurodiverse and differently able people, then it will really fucking hurt for you to admit to yourself and others that they are human beings that are equally unique and beautiful and worthy with you. Sorry. Don't blame me, I'm just the messenger.

But you've gotta do it. I do to. It's so hard to take another perspective when you've grown up in a society where yours is the default. I grew up where white, straight, able-bodied and male was the default. So TV, movies, books, school, life, everything was from my perspective. Holy efficiency, Batman! I didn't have to do any of that dumb perspective shifting if I didn't want to!

I didn't have a friend or know anyone who was out as a gay man until 2003 (A.D.). I grew up kinda sheltered in my perspectives. It felt like dying when I started peeling back the layers. But it is the only possible way to learn.

If you keep running the same patterns, the same pathways, you maintain homeostasis, but you can never find a more efficient set of patterns. You have to do the work, to learn to deal with the discomfort of the fight-or-flight response the brain triggers as the ego dies. But on the other side is the best perspective of all: second-person equal.

Because that is the only perspective that can love you. That is the only perspective that you can love in return.

I believe heaven is second-person equal, present-tense, mutual-gratitude eternal perspective. I believe heaven is something we can work to create right now. If we're willing to change perspectives.

*I believe that consciousness is an emergent phenomenon. That's why we can't see it on MRIs or point to it in autopsies. It's not within the circuitry of our brain but is the greater-sum of the individual parts.

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