The Stoic Practice for Greater Perspective

The pithy phrase “perception is reality” is most often attributed to the late political consultant and strategist Lee Atwater, a controversial figure from American politics if ever there were one, per The New Yorker. When Atwater issued that maxim, words we can just as easily picture coming from Stalin or Mao, he didn’t have the best of intentions – he meant that, in politics, people can be misled.

Taken in a different context, though, he was entirety right, and that context, for our purposes, is your own view of your own life. The way in which we perceive our own lives, and specifically the challenges and difficulties in life, can have a marked effect on our quality of life.

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When we dwell on our difficulties, letting every problem drag us down toward despair, we deprive ourselves of the chance for happiness. When we instead make a more objective, even distant appraisal of our troubles, we may seem them as less potent, and in so doing we may create more space for joy.

This practice is easier said than done, of course, which is why it’s a good idea to adopt an approach that has been recognized since antiquity: the Stoic view from above.

What Does Stoic Philosophy Teach?

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Before addressing the Stoic view from above, let’s clear the air here, as many people are misled as to just what Stoics teach. Hardly a cold, harsh “grin and bear it” approach to life, the basic tenets of Stoicism are to focus on the virtues of wisdom, justice, and happiness and to minimize our worries over events we cannot control.

As it happens, this secular philosophy is well summed up by the famous Serenity Prayer, which reads: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

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Stoics can (and do) love life, be filled with joy, and see the good in all things. In fact, they do this all the more for trying not to dwell on the bad things. And this can be achieved by the perspective gained from what some people call the “30,000-foot view.”

The Stoic View From Above in Practice

view of people in city as seen from above
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The simplest way to think of the Stoic’s view from above is to shift your thinking about an issue from the first person to the third person – this exercise can help you obtain an objectivity that may be impossible otherwise. Think not “what can I do about this?” but instead “what can be done about this?” 

Once you are able to think about yourself in the third person, you can conduct an exercise that is part thought experiment and part meditation. Sit comfortably, close your eyes if you’d like, and literally picture yourself from above – see yourself just as you are, sitting there thinking about yourself and your problems.

Now picture yourself as you might look from, say, a hundred feet up. You are still recognizable, still the center of the frame, as it were, but how much else can this objective viewer now see as well? The entirety of your home and maybe even some of the neighbors, perhaps? Do your concerns seem smaller from 100 feet up, perhaps even more so when seen compared to the problems of others or when contrasted against some sources of happiness?

Draw your mind even farther into the sky now – see yourself from a thousand feet up. You still know where you are, that vaguely visible human form down there, but the particulars of your problems are now likely vague, save perhaps for one or two major problems. (And these are the problems that do indeed merit your attention and energy.)

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Rising ever farther in your down-looking view, you will start to see how, frankly speaking, you are one part of an immense whole. Take from this not a feeling of insignificance, for without its every piece, this whole is nothing. Without every person, every creature, even every blade of grass or drop of water, the world on which you live would not be intact.

Instead draw this conclusion: your troubles are but one part of you. They can only be the dominant part if you let them.

Why Minimizing Our Problems Is a Good Thing, Not an Escape

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We all have difficulties in life – pretending otherwise is foolish and trying to hide from our troubles is in fact counterproductive: not only will they be waiting for us, they may be worse for having gone unconfronted. When we minimize a problem, we are not saying it’s not a problem and we’re not shirking from its confrontation, what we are doing is merely minimizing how much it can affect the rest of our lives.

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When we take a Stoic view from above approach to our difficulties, we can begin to see them as isolated issues, which indeed most problems in life are. That you stubbed your toe this morning, the same day you found out a loan application had been rejected, and the same week that your close friend fell ill, need not be compounding. The stubbed toe is transient; the loan is a frustration but the issue can be mitigated by trying again with another bank; the illness is a real concern, but one that need not be amplified by issues that are hardly life-or-death.

Context Gained From the View From Above

man ponders life looking out on a lake
(Photo by Tom Pottiger on Unsplash)

The late renowned Buddhist monk and author Thich Nhat Hanh wrote a passage that is perhaps the best contextualization for the view from above penned in modern times. He wrote in part: “Imagine two astronauts go to the moon, and while they’re there, there’s an accident and their ship can’t take them back to Earth. They have only enough oxygen for two days. There is no hope of someone coming from Earth in time to rescue them. They have only two days to live. If you were to ask them at that moment: ‘What is your deepest wish?’ they would answer: ‘To be back home walking on our beautiful planet Earth.’ That would be enough for them; they wouldn’t want anything else.”

Realize that you are not stranded on the moon, you are here on beautiful planet Earth, and yes, you have your problems, but if you can see them from far enough away, you may just see that they are mere islands in a joyful sea. They can be sailed around with a bit of effort rather than anchors weighing down your ship.

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