We have a saying in English, “He can’t see the forest for the trees.” It’s a reminder not to lose sight of the big picture in the details. Details are important — after all, the devil is in the details, as they say — but they can sometimes obscure what’s really important. To avoid this pitfall, we need to employ the character strength of Perspective, which is the ability to see the important issues, motivations, and narrative threads involved in a situation and offer solid advice to others accordingly.
According to the VIA Institute on Character Strengths, Perspective involves “giv[ing] advice to others by considering different (and relevant) perspectives and using my own experiences and knowledge to clarify the big picture,” and “to avoid getting wrapped up in the small details when there are bigger issues to consider.” It is an “ability to look at systems as a whole” and to translate this perception into practical, beneficial advice. In order to do this, it requires a strong understanding of the self, including of our limitations (The Power of Character Strengths, 81).
If you have been following these posts on character strengths, or the good fruit our lives can bear, you’ll likely be thinking this seems similar to the character trait of Judgment. And they are indeed very closely related, and act as complements for one another. (I would argue that the names given to them in the VIA classification are a bit misleading too, since both are about exercising good judgment and understanding different perspectives!) The difference is that, as defined by the VIA classification, Judgment is the ability to zoom in to focus on different details, while Perspective is the ability to zoom out to see the whole.
Perspective has many benefits to our wellbeing. According to Niemietz and McGrath, studies have found that seniors who are high in this strength and are therefore able to understand the process of aging and mortality in a gracious way, have a higher quality of life and greater sense of wellbeing compared to those who are low in this strength. The effect remains when external factors such as health, finances, class, and social environment are taken into account. Similarly, people high in perspective are sought out and respected at work, in friendships, and communities for their advice and wisdom. Niemietz and McGrath also note that Perspective assists us in knowing when and how to deploy our other character strengths appropriately.
A common tool in coaching and psychology right now is known as reframing. This is the intentional re-interpretation of the facts of a situation in a positive way as a means of combating automatic negative thoughts. While, like any tool or strength, this can be used in a bad way (I have one friend who reframes things to the point where they barely resemble the facts at all!), when used appropriately and wisely, reframing is an example of deploying the strength of Perspective to improve our wellbeing.
Unsurprisingly, Perspective is a highly sought-after skill in religious traditions as well. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, it seems to be most of what the Scriptures have in mind when they speak of “wisdom.” For example, when King Solomon prays to God for wisdom, he says: “Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil” (1 Kings 3.9). This prayer demonstrates the practical nature of perspective: it is not a philosophical or abstract wisdom, but is meant to help with interpretation, discernment, decision-making, and advice. And we see in the story of Solomon that people would come from all over the Near East seeking his counsel.
Christianity adds a different spin on the idea of wisdom, however. I like to say that the disciples and early Christianity as a whole looked at the world through “Christ-coloured glasses.” Everything — from world history to salvation history to their own stories — was interpreted through the story of Jesus: the incarnation, his teaching, his death, and his resurrection. This is most famously described in 1 Corinthians 1.17-31, in which Paul contrasts the divine wisdom of Christ with the wisdom of “the world,” the powers-that-be: “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (v.18). What he is saying is that for the Christians, Christ’s story has become the bigger perspective through which all is understood, even if this story doesn’t make much sense to people outside of the faith.
While this reading is specifically Christian, it provides a helpful way of understanding how faith traditions more generally help (or hinder) us: Their wisdom is in providing the stories — the bigger perspective — through which we make sense of our world. At first glance this may sound like a recipe for religious mania or fanaticism, but I think this is only the case when the character strength of perspective is misused. It isn’t just about having the right set of perspectives at hand, but also about knowing which to deploy when. For example, there are narratives within the Christian story we can deploy when being confronted with an unhappy truth about ourselves. The wisdom of the character strength of Perspective is to know that the story of David being rebuked over his dealings with Uriah the Hittite (see 2 Samuel 12) is a far more apt narrative to apply to ourselves in that situation than the crucifixion of Jesus.
What are some other ways perspective can go awry? A lack of perspective leads to a lack of discernment and poor decision-making. It can cause us to get lost in the weeds, or caught up in our immediate whims. The opposite of perspective is foolishness, a rejection of meaning and good sense in our actions and relationships. While it’s important to “live in the moment,” it is foolish to live life without any reference to the past or future. To live wisely with the strength of Perspective, we can live in the moment while understanding that the present is the place where the lessons we’ve learned from the past and the future we want to create intersect. The problematic excess of this strength can be an over-abstraction — like my friend, we can reframe things to the extent that they no longer resemble the facts of the situation — that leaves our advice trite and useless. Also, people who are high in this character strength need to remember that sometimes the people who come to us aren’t looking for our advice, but just a listening ear. If we don’t understand this, an excess of perspective can come across as overbearing and drive people away.
Here are some ways we can work on increasing our perspective:
- Help a family member or colleague talk through the possibilities and variables when they are dealing with a problem
- Reframe a problem you are experiencing so you can see it from a different, more helpful and actionable, perspective
- In a given situation, ask yourself the questions that guide our integral Bible interpretations:
- Where and how is this situation calling me to grow?
- How can this situation expand my circle of empathy?
- What might this situation bring into my awareness?
- How does this situation and my response to it impact others?
- Provide a listening ear to a friend, family member, or colleague.