A little perspective goes a long way

You’ve probably heard it in a meeting: someone will try to present “the view from 30,000 feet.” It’s a way of saying, “We need to not get so bogged down in the details that we can’t step back and see the big picture. Let’s not lose sight of what’s going on around us, and what’s really important in the long run.”

Of course, 30,000 feet is a long way to step back. But sometimes we need it.

The metaphor is a reference is to how things look from an airplane window at cruising altitude. Much of the time, though, all you see from that height is the clouds. That view can be almost ethereal, especially at sunrise or sunset.

But for the sake of perspective, I prefer the view you get when you break through the clouds, as the plane makes its descent. This is when the features of our earthly life become recognizable but distant. The tallest buildings look small; busy freeways look like trails of ants. I imagine the hustle and bustle of people in their tiny little cars, rushing to get to who knows where, in a hurry not because they have to be but because that’s just how it is. Is that me down there? I wonder. What would be different if I were able to consistently see my life from above?

That, I think, is what we should be getting from our reading of Scripture.

. . .

Allow me a moment to bring in a bit of psychology. For well over a year now, I’ve been journaling every morning on the Psalms, a practice loosely inspired by the work of James Pennebaker. Pennebaker found that people could begin getting a handle on traumatic experiences through one simple practice: every day, for four days straight, they would sit down and write (longhand) about the difficult experience for fifteen minutes. They were instructed to keep these writings private, so they could scribble down whatever came to mind, uncensored and unedited.

Moreover, they were told to write, as much as possible, from a third person point of view. They were, in other words, to take the perspective of a curious observer, seeing themselves from the outside. They were encouraged to ask questions like, What’s going on here? or What are these people feeling? or Why might they be feeling that way? This wasn’t meant to be a detailed and logical analysis; people were simply given a gentle push to get outside themselves and then write about whatever they noticed.

At first, the writings were on the chaotic side. But as the days progressed, the narratives typically became less disjointed and more orderly. Pennebaker found that the more people’s writing grew in cohesiveness, the greater their improvement in how they felt about their past difficulties. They were beginning to make sense of their experiences in a way that made them feel more manageable. Some people, of course, wrote for more than fifteen minutes (the original time limit was arbitrary and was adopted for purely pragmatic reasons); some continued to write beyond the four days. But most felt calmer by the end of the exercise.

Such is the power of getting a little perspective. And apparently, it didn’t take that much to get there.

Hearing about Pennebaker’s research, many might say, “That’s great for those people, but I’m not a writer.” Neither were they. Nobody was being judged on the quality or elegance of their prose. What mattered was being put into a structured situation that forced them to look at themselves from the outside and think about things just long enough and coherently enough to be able to put it into writing.

. . .

For my own part, I’m not trying to deal with a traumatic past. I’ve been journaling on the Psalms for way longer than four days, and probably for more like 45 minutes to an hour a day. But the discipline has been good for me. It helps me to imagine more vividly how the world may have seemed from the psalmist’s perspective, and challenges me to see my own life differently.

If I were just to read a psalm and put it aside, I would probably forget much of it quickly as I entered the busyness of my day. If I were to meditate on it, my thoughts would probably be here and there. Putting things into words and writing them down helps me focus, to drill down into deeper veins of meaning, then rise back up again to the 30,000 foot view.

It works for me, anyway. If you have your own way of regularly getting outside yourself and gaining a more biblical perspective on your life, then by all means, do that.