Have you stopped to think how much of what you appreciate and desire depends on your perspective?
Last year, during The Bridge’s 2-week project in South Africa, we were hiking in the beautiful mountains around Cape Town. Arnold, the program director of a friend organization, Usiko, and I were walking together. They work with at-risk youth from underprivileged suburban areas of Cape Town.
I stopped for a moment to take in the view, and asked him if he brought his students often to this area. He said yes, and I told him how important it is to expose people to beauty. He agreed, but proceeded to tell me something that has stuck with me. He said that many of his students could not perceive the beauty; they could see it, but couldn’t really appreciate it. This made me think that appreciation requires education, or else it is not exercised. Every single day, almost all the time, we presence marvelous events. Wonderful feats of human creativity, such as buildings and cars. Incredible skies and natural beauty. People with unique perspectives to delve into and connect with. But it seems like unless we create a container to take it in and appreciate it, it flows right past us like water in a stream.
Educating ourselves and others in the valuable practice of appreciation is not complicated. It just needs practice. You don’t need college degrees, money or higher levels of consciousness. By taking a moment and asking ourselves: what is unique in what I’m experiencing? What would this experience be if the sky was just gray as opposed to blue? What would life be if there was no diversity in perspectives and cultures? What am I taking for granted now that I would miss if it wasn’t here?
And just like appreciation requires education, what we desire is a product of such education, and often goes unnoticed as well. Of course we have basic needs, like food, shelter and belonging; and meeting those needs are part of our desires. However, a simple hut and a mansion are both shelter, just like we can find belonging by being part of a sports team or by posting lots of pictures on social media. Being thoughtful of what we desire is essential, as many people around us want us to desire something they have, like their products, substances, or their acceptance. If we are not intentional and mindful of what we desire we can end spending a lot of energy and time (in some cases a lifetime) pursuing a desire that doesn’t fulfill us or maybe isn’t our desire to begin with. Huts, mansions, sports teams and social media are all fine if they are truly satisfying our deeper needs; otherwise they may become a distraction or an obstacle, and ultimately lead to frustration and disappointment.
A few simple skills really help educate our appreciation and desire:
1. Awareness: keeping our senses awake to subtleties we might not typically realize. Is there beauty around me I have been taking in? What need am I trying to fulfill by binge-watching Netflix?
2. Flexibility: we shift our perspective, acknowledge the needs we are trying to fulfill, and find alternative ways to meet them. This way, we disentangle our expectations from what the situation actually offers. Instead of waiting for my friends to call, could I just sit back and hang out with my siblings for the night?
3. Ordinariness: more often than not, reality is plenty fine, and contains enough to appreciate and to meet our needs.
It’s important to reclaim our own ability to shift the way we perceive what we need and appreciate. It’s not easy, it requires a lot practice, education and more often than not, re-education. But it’s completely possible! And what’s more, we can influence, and therefore educate other people as well, just by sharing our perspectives on what we appreciate and realize we truly need.