PERSPECTIVE: Making the Big Things Little
405 years ago, the Dutch States-General examined a patent application for “a device to observe things at a distance” — the beginnings of the telescope. It seems fitting that the anniversary of that is this week, because lately I’ve been thinking a lot about perspective.
It started on Monday when my brilliant friend Sera Lindsey posted the beautiful photograph you see above, of a girl in a pool, but wait, is she actually in a teacup?
On Tuesday I rediscovered one of my favorite Internet gems: The Scale of the Universe by Cary Huang on StumbleUpon, which lets you compare your own size to the size of a string or to the size of the Universe, from yoctometers to yottameters (those are actual things) and everything in between (note: beware the Japanese Spider Crab).
And on top of that, it seems that everyone’s been a little stressed lately. Ok, first of all, the GOVERNMENT IS SHUT DOWN, so that doesn’t help. But have you also noticed that the feeling of back-to-school magic has worn off — you know, the nostalgic smell of newly-sharpened pencils and Scotch tape à la You’ve Got Mail – and now we’re just kind of back in the grind and it’s hard and there’s a bunch of stuff to do? Your tan has faded (or if you’re like me, you never had one to begin with because apparently it’s anatomically impossible) and maybe you got stuck with a teacher who takes off way too many points for not boxing your answer just so or folding your paper exactly down the middle or some other incredibly picky thing that one just shouldn’t take off that many points for because to do so seems morally wrong. Maybe you got your first grade that you’re less than thrilled by, or maybe you were OK with it but your parents weren’t because you’re in high school now where “EVERYTHING COUNTS.” Or you’re a Junior or a Senior this year and you thought everything counted before? Well “IT REALLY COUNTS NOW.” And then on top of all that your whole social circle has spontaneously become disjointed and your new soccer coach made practices longer and Kanani didn’t get to come back on ANTM and who feels like reaching for the Oreos because I know I do.
You’ve heard it said before that “it’s so easy to lose perspective,” or maybe you’ve been told to “try to put things into perspective.” But what exactly does that mean?
In math, perspective is a way of depicting volumes and spatial relationships on a flat surface. It’s like magic: by making vertical and horizontal lines intersect in a certain way, suddenly what you’re looking at appears to pop off the page.
You’ve done or will do a lot of this in geometry — drawing cubes, prisms, cylinders and spheres with a swipe of lead across your graph paper.
Photographs do this, too: give you a sense of depth and scale in a small, flat image. Like this:
By this time in your life you’ve probably see a lot of images like these, so maybe they’ve become normal to you — but if you think about it, it’s pretty amazing: how something so large and three-dimensional can be captured in such a small container like your computer screen. Buildings turn into dollhouses and cars look as tiny as the ones you used to race along your kitchen floor. It feels very doable to skip across a rooftop or swing through ancient pillars.
That’s another thing that’s so spectacular about math: you can take a number or a size that’s literally so large it has no end, and represent it with a tiny symbol. Suddenly you have infinity in your notebook.
So how does this apply to your life? Well, to start, drawing figures in math class expands your visual imagination. Imagination and math: two words that don’t get to hang out a lot. But they should. As Manil Suri wrote in his beautiful New York Times article: “…with math you can reach not just for the sky or the stars or the edges of the universe, but for timeless constellations of ideas that lie beyond.”
If you can take a huge number or skyscraper and scale it down to fit your 8.5 x 11 sheet of binder paper, can’t you do the same with something as life-threatening as a bad test? Two of my favorite dictionary definitions of perspective are: “a way of regarding situations and judging their relative importance,” and “a view over some distance in space or time.” I’m not saying that your test isn’t important, but make sure you’re not letting it become more important than it is. Is it causing you an hour of misery or a whole weekend of it? Is it going to ruin your entire life or is it just a temporary smudge of dirt on your favorite pair of jeans?
When I was younger, the littlest things would cause me to want to stay in bed for a week. I was a textbook perfectionist with a pretty impressive case of OCD. My mom, sensing that I was about to enter into a downward spiral of self-loathing, would say, “Why don’t you go outside and see how pretty the sky is today?” Or, “Go play with Lucy for a little bit.” (Lucy was my dog.) “I can’t!” I would cry. “I have a million things to do!” (Ok, maybe 7 things, but they were all really important.) Moms have this ninja way of getting you to do stuff, particularly things you don’t want to do, and so sure enough I’d find myself out in my backyard, grumbling through my forced time-out — and then the weirdest thing would happen.
I’d start to notice that the sky actually was really pretty that day, and also really big, and wait, did it really go on forever? How many bad math tests would it take to fill up that whole monstrosity? Certainly a lot more than I’d ever experience. And then Lucy would come bounding through the yard and she seemed so happy, like all the time, and then she’d do this thing that always makes me laugh, and fine, now I was laughing. And in spite of my best efforts to stay miserable, that thing I didn’t know how to find went ahead and found me. (Perspective.)
Now that I’m older, I’m not immune to wanting to make everything a big deal. But I kindly force myself to take perspective breaks, ideally once every hour. For at least a few minutes, I’m under strict orders from the most demanding person I know (me) to do absolutely nothing, preferably outside. In those little moments, I’ll notice something like the fact that the ocean never stops flowing, or my puppy never stops playing, or the clouds never stop floating, and so whatever malaise I’m currently feeling is probably also gonna pass. And then every so often it occurs to me that maybe my life isn’t about each triumph or failure, but about the big picture of all of them combined — and that picture, in my humble opinion, looks (at least from far away) like a pretty badass Monet.
Take five, Cate