The One Thing You Cannot Afford to Lose

“To change ourselves effectively, we first had to change our perceptions.”

― Stephen R. Covey

“What happens is of little significance compared with the stories we tell ourselves about what happens. Events matter little, only stories of events affect us.”

― Rabih Alameddine

“The trick to forgetting the big picture is to look at everything close up.”

― Chuck Palahniuk

Much of what we focus on, in the ultimate scheme of things, doesn’t really matter. But there is one thing we must cultivate, and take care to never lose. It’s not often talked about, but its absence makes life especially hard today. Our world is confusing enough as it is — and without this quality, it becomes a nightmare.

What I’m talking about is a sense of proportion … a sense of perspective. I was reminded of this while reading James Allen’s book “Light on Life’s Difficulties.” Allen lived in England around the turn of the 20th century, and wrote many books, including the classic “As a Man Thinketh.” Don’t let the sexist, King-James-language title put you off: this is one of the all-time classic self-help books. It’s still in print, and well worth the read. “Light on Life’s Difficulties” has more of a focus on moral and spiritual teaching. It was the last book Allen wrote, and published in 1912, the year of his death.

What follows is what I call a remix of his chapter “Light on the Sense of Proportion.” By “remix” I mean it’s a combination of extended quote and revised and updated language. I include my own thoughts mixed in with the original author’s, as well as updating the language for today. Since Allen is long dead and the book is no longer in print, I don’t think he or his publishers will mind. Listen to what he has to say. I think you’ll find — as I did — how relevant these words from 1912 are for today:

In a nightmare there is no relation of one thing to another; all things are haphazard, and there is general confusion and misery. Wise people have likened the self-absorbed life to a nightmare; and there is a close resemblance between a selfish life, in which the sense of proportion is so far lost that things are only seen as they affect one’s own, self-absorbed aims, and in which there are feverish excitements and overwhelming troubles and disasters, and that state of troubled sleep known as nightmare.

In a nightmare too, the controlling will and perceiving intelligence are asleep; and in a self-absorbed life the better nature and spiritual perceptions are also locked in a kind of unconscious slumber.

The uncultivated mind lacks the sense of proportion. It does not see the right relation of one natural object to another, and is therefore dead to the beauty and harmony with which it is surrounded. Even worse, such a mind is driven to endless distraction and anxiety about issues and concerns that are ultimately of little consequence. It lives in a heightened and exaggerated state of arousal and anxiety. Not able to discern the truly important from the trifle, it frets about everything.

And what is this sense of proportion but the faculty of seeing things as they are! It is a faculty which needs cultivating, and its cultivation, when applied to natural objects, embraces the entire intelligence and refines the moral nature. It enters into spiritual things as well as things natural. Here is more lacking, and greatly needed; for to see things as they are in the spiritual sphere, is to find a life of much less grief, lamentation, and distress.

Where does all this grief and worry and trouble come? Is it not because things are not as we wish them to be? Is it not because the multiplicity of our desires keeps us from seeing things in their true perspective and right proportion?

When people are overwhelmed with grief, they see nothing but their loss. Its nearness to them blots out the whole view of life. The thing in itself may be small, but to the sufferer it assumes a magnitude which is out of all proportion to the surrounding objects of life.

Anyone over the age of thirty can look back over their lives and see times when they were perplexed with anxiety, overwhelmed with grief, or even on the verge of despair — and this over incidents which, seen now in their right proportion, are known to be very small.

If the suicidal person of today would hold off and wait, in ten years they will look back in gratitude that they did not take such a step. In fact, they will likely be disconcerted to realize how distraught they were about something that, from a different perspective, seems very surmountable.

When the mind is overtaken by passion or paralyzed with grief, it has lost the power of judgment. It cannot weigh and consider, it does not perceive the relative values and proportions of the things by which it is disturbed. Awake and acting, it yet moves in a nightmare which holds its faculties captive.

This is true in politics as well. The passionate partisian lacks this sense of proportion to such an extent that to him, his own side or view appears all that is right and good, and his opponents all that is bad and wrong. He is so convinced that his own party is all right, and the other, equally intelligent, party is all wrong, that it is impossible for him to be impartial and just. The only thing he understands as justice is that of getting his own way, or placing some ruling power in the hands of his party.

Men worry, and grieve, and fight, because they lack this sense of proportion, because they do not see things in their right relations. The objects of their turbulence are not things-in-themselves, but their own opinions about things, self-created shadows, the unreal creations of an egoistic nightmare.

The cultivation and development of the sense of proportion converts the heated partisian into the gentle peacemaker, and gives the calm and searching eye of the spiritual sage to the person previously blinded by the clashing play of selfish forces.

The spiritual sense of proportion gives sanity; it restores the mind to calmness; it bestows impartiality and justice, and reveals a universe of faultless harmony.