Choose your bigger picture


What is guiding your bigger picture?

With the start of a new year, the collective eagerness of taking a step back and submitting our lives to immense scrutiny is surely underway. Gaining perspective can be a powerful tool when used accordingly. Without delving into value systems, goals, and discriminating against different ways of action, what I want to ask is how do we form these bigger pictures? Be it your career, relationships, life goals, or your niche hobby, it doesn’t matter what aspect needs perspective. The question is how do we construct the bigger picture in the past, the future and, most importantly, the present.

What do we choose to focus on, now?

David Foster Wallace’s 2005 commencement speech entitled “This is water” talks about the highest value of education: the ability to choose how you construct meaning from your experiences. Wallace’s speech is a plea for empathy, in which he describes how during the mundane routines of adult life, we are constantly tasked with choosing between varying degrees of egocentrism or allocentrism ( a term defined as having one’s interest and attention centered on other persons).

In other words, every time you are faced with horrible traffic, incredibly long queues, or trying to regain your lost personal space on the subway, you are faced with the burden of choice. You can direct your attention to your frustration, your lack of time, or your exhaustion, which in most cases has become the default thought process. As a result, everything and everyone that is not allowing you to get back to your schedule is in your way. Or, on the other side of the spectrum, you can choose to acknowledge that everyone around you is in the same exact situation and might even have struggles you are unaware of. You might even be in their way. You are also part of a bigger picture.

Obvious, to say the least. The obviousness of the fact is why his speech is entitled “This is water”. He begins with a short allegory about two fish swimming through the water, who meet a third, older fish. The older fish says “Good morning boys. How’s the water?” as he swims by. Moments later, one fish asks the other “What’s water?”. In Wallace’s later words,

“the most obvious, important realities are often the ones hardest to see and talk about”.

Wallace does not argue that we should employ one perspective or the other. Rather, he argues that our experience of our surroundings is a choice. Thusly, it needs to be a deliberate choice. Author Annie Dillard once wrote:

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives”

The bigger picture depends on our conscious confrontation with our ability to choose. Do we get frustrated because of a work problem? Or do we choose a more stoic approach and see the problem as an opportunity? Do tedious tasks have to be tedious, or can we shift our attention and make them pleasant?

Forging meaning from the past

Constructing meaning in the present will, nevertheless, always be based on the foundation of the past. To be able to view what has happened and decide how it affects the present is crucial.

In his TED talk “How the worst moments in our lives make us who we are”, author Andrew Solomon speaks against the notion of finding meaning and in favor of forging it. He argues for choosing how to perceive the events that have unfolded during one’s life, on using them to construct identity, and how crucial they are in our formation:

“Ease makes less of an impression on ourselves than struggle. We could have been ourselves without our delights. But not without our misfortunes that drive our search for meaning.”

His stories are of people who have chosen to find the good of what has happened to them and how it has impacted their lives for the better. In other words, Solomon argues for the intentional practice of not succumbing to the negative but allowing it to make the present more meaningful. When looking at the bigger picture, even the simplest words that his son says to him can make all negative past events worthwhile.

What you want now might not be what you want in the future, and that is ok.

Psychologist Daniel Gilbert argues that

“the person you are right now is as transient, as fleeting as all the people you’ve ever been”

Humans have this ability to think that we have arrived at the final versions of ourselves and that we won’t change much more than we are now. Gilbert’s studies prove that the notion is false and that we continuously change throughout our lifetime.

Our goals change from success to pleasure, to social relationships depending on the different stages of our lives. And that is ok. The purpose of seeing the bigger picture is to understand that these things change and to be aware of when they do, rather than staying in default and obsolete mindsets. It is important to choose when to let go of old beliefs and integrate new ones. In the words of brainpicking.com owner and author Maria Popova,

“allow yourself the uncomfortable luxury of changing your mind.”

The bigger picture

The bigger picture, any bigger picture, is always intricate, but our control over it is more than we lead on. We do not have to be passive subjects to our pasts, to our current circumstances and surroundings, nor to preconceived ideas of our future. The bigger picture is created through the intentional practice of choice, by framing what is important and what is not. Ultimately, we decide what we want in that picture.

Cover image by Pixabay

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About Radu

Radu studied film & computing, works in EdTech as a content creator, and reads nonfiction books in his spare time.

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