This year, I chose a book to read during Lent: The World's Religions by Huston Smith. I'm not far in yet, but something he said in his introduction struck me.
Smith writes, “Without two eyes--binocular vision--there is no awareness of space's third dimension. Until sight converges from more than one angle, the world looks as flat as a postcard. The rewards of having two eyes are practical; they keep us from bumping into chairs and enable us to judge the speed of approaching cars. But the final reward is the deepened view of the world itself--the panoramas that unroll before us, the vistas that extend from our feet. It is the same with the 'eye of the soul,' as Plato called it. 'What do they know of England, who only England know?'”
This is not an unfamiliar concept to me, compulsive reader of fiction that I am. But the clarity of Smith's metaphor solidified something that I've really struggled with over the past couple of decades.
I learned early on to value the perspectives of others. As a child, I was taught to listen more than speak, because people are more important than demonstrating that I am right. I learned to love experiencing others' stories as soon as I learned to read; as C.S. Lewis said, "In reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself... I see with a myriad of eyes, but it is still I who see." I learned from many people that whatever we think in our own minds must be measured against the thoughts of others, and if they do not match, then our own thoughts are probably the ones that cannot be trusted.
All of these things are at least partially true, and I am not sorry that I learned them young.
But I learned them too well. I thought I was required to devalue my own perspective to make room for those of others. I thought that because I did not have the stirring, unique, or meaningful struggles of people in the books I read, my experiences must not be worth sharing. I thought that if I could not find a mirror in the outside world for every part of me, an echo of every bit of myself, then those parts of me must not be real.
I needed to own myself, to rejoice in the things that make me original, even if they are not radical. Yet I could not solve the riddle of trusting who I was while always giving value to the differing experiences and expectations of those around me. If I gave their stories precedence, I felt small, worthless and impotent. If I gave my own stories precedence, I felt guilty and ashamed.
In other words, I assumed that the acknowledgement of human worth was a zero-sum game--that I had to either strip it from myself to give to others, or strip it from others to give to myself. The first one seemed the only moral choice I could make. Yet the longer I tried, the more unable I was to do so, since I did not have a place to stand as just myself, the ability to love from that uniquely grounded perspective.
The truth is that nothing about humanity is really a zero-sum game.
Honoring others and living as ourselves isn't even just about love, or self-esteem, or morality. It's about needing two eyes to properly see in three dimensions. We don't just need our own perspective, but that of others. Equally, we need not only that of others, but that of our own selves. Imbalance in either direction can blind us, can wound us or others.
So look lovingly on others' stories; embrace and wonder at them. Look with equal love on your own story; embrace it, revel in it, celebrate it. Overlay them both as you look at the world: watch it come into focus, and achieve true depth.