That day as a sophomore, I was being quite sophomoric. The professor in our American literature class had made the statement that we see only from our own viewpoints. With a silent, smug, “Well, duh, yeah,” I wrote the words in my notebook: “We see only from our own viewpoints,” followed by the professor’s name. From whose viewpoint could I possibly see but mine?
I wonder how many times I have returned to that professor’s statement as I have grown less sophomoric and somewhat wiser sometimes. The trick, of course, is to become aware of the “just my own” in my viewpoint and so discern the limited, often myopic nature of that viewpoint which is just mine. In truth, I was already on my way even then as a college sophomore, in part thanks to a high school history teacher who had opened my eyes to the viewpoint-determined nature of historical facts. Balboa discovered the Pacific Ocean (and named it Pacifico), right? Yup, that’s the answer for the elementary school history quiz. But really? What of the thousands of people who had been swimming, boating, and fishing in it for centuries uncounted?
Indeed, that’s the right word: uncounted. From the predominant European viewpoint, those people did not count. As Mark Twain put it, “The very ink with which history is written is fluid prejudice.” The American mythology of our beginnings as a nation, complete with a huge dose of divine will, purpose, guidance, and protection that yielded our “manifest destiny” and our lingering sense of exceptional greatness, was all our story from our own viewpoint. I must note here that one theologian whose work I am rereading observes that before the republic became an empire, much of the American dream lived in us as hope and aspiration for ourselves and sometimes for the other peoples of earth, not as established fact and belief not to be questioned. As we became more and more an empire, our sense of exceptional greatness hardened into proud certainty, then (especially after September 11, 2001) fearfully and angrily defended dogma.
As I walked around our yard this morning taking photos, I noticed pluses and minuses in the effects of our recent deluge. Our rain gauge had showed about 11.5 inches of rain in five days, with more rain to come (and more still coming). Our grape tomatoes have been splitting as they ripen. There’s a minus. The withering white begonias we had transplanted without apparent success in saving them had taken hold in the downpours and are now thriving. There’s a plus.
Minus and plus, I realized as I brought up the photographic images transferred to my computer are only from our viewpoint. Success means white flowers to contrast with the other colors in the front gardens and tomatoes to eat and share with the neighbors. The split tomatoes, however, can still drop their seeds. Some insects are enjoying the tomatoes’ vulnerability. This realization of different views may be a small matter, but it raises a larger question. Is earth our warehouse of resources to be used and even used up, or do we bear responsibility for earth’s other creatures and for the world itself, responsibility that is not gauged only by our needs, desires, and benefits? Does everything exist just for us? Do animals and plants have worth only according to their usefulness or profitability to us or for their beauty or cuteness in our eyes?
The famous and now notorious Genesis command to the human creatures to “fill the earth and subdue it” comes to us from within the context of human vulnerability to nature and Judah’s reduction to powerlessness by the Neo-Babylonians. No biblical writer ever dreamed of a time when humans would hold the power to destroy all life on earth and even the planet itself. None imagined human capability to pollute the air and the seas. For them, the world belonged to God and not to them. They were appointed by God to serve as caretakers of earth and care givers for each other. Since those ancient, pre-scientific times, we have gained exponentially in knowledge about our world and control over it, but how much have we gained in wisdom? Now that we are seeing the limits of our control and the dangers in our greed, we are growing anxious and defensive.
Now that humanity has “come of age” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s expression), we have lived to see, those of us who will look, technology as a runaway train that might just careen toward our destruction. We have learned to use data and charts to assure ourselves of continued prosperity as more and more people suffer poverty and deprivation. Values-free research combined with our dominant profit motive have left us anxious and increasingly inclined to retreat into entertainments. or narcotics.
I am not suggesting a return to pre-scientific and pre-Enlightenment thinking. We cannot go back to “old-time religion” or a Medieval world of magic and superstition, but are we so fixed in our limited viewpoint that we cannot find in ourselves and our world a sense of wonder? Can we learn a humility that is not self-deprecating or pathetic but is strong enough to stop pretending to be more in control than the human creature can be? Can we stop calling ourselves the greatest long enough to find hope again and take responsibility for our actions in terms of our relatedness to each other, to the other creatures, and to earth itself?
We see only from our own viewpoints. Yes, but how liberating it can be to realize my view comes only from my viewpoint and so is quite limited and sometimes distorted. How much more liberating even it is to learn that I can, like my camera, change lenses and see differently. I cannot see through your eyes, but I can listen to you and defer preparing what I’ll say next to argue my position or one-up you with a funnier story. Realizing the narrowness of vision from my viewpoint only can open my eyes to the wonders and responsibilities of life that is shared and hopes that can be shared as well.