The Power of Perspective
Last week, I attended TEDx Beirut’s event at Minus 5, a repurposed industrial warehouse hidden in the basement of the Mkalles 2001/Bou Khalil complex. (How often does my family stop to shop at Bou Khalil, en route to our Mansourieh home, but never before have I noticed Minus 5.) For those of you readers who are unfamiliar with TED, it’s an international forum where speakers are invited to recount “ideas worth spreading.” These talks are filmed before large audiences and uploaded to TED.com for access to international viewers.
TEDx Beirut, which is officially licensed by TED, organizes independent events fostering dialogue at the local level. At the TEDx Beirut Salon last Thursday, the theme was “Shifting Perspectives,” and a few TEDTalks videos exemplifying this motif were played. One such speaker we listened to was Rory Sutherland, Vice Chairman of Ogilvy Group, a veritable advertising guru. He spoke at length of the power of perspective and how it supersedes reality. To illustrate, Sutherland describes a dinner party where one guest is standing solo and staring out of a window and how immediately he is binned as an “antisocial, friendless idiot.” However, if said guest stands and stares out the window while puffing on his cigarette, he is hailed as a philosopher. In another example, Sutherland criticizes the $6 million euros that were spent reducing the transit time on the Eurostar from England to France by 40 minutes. Rather ingeniously, he suggests that for 10% of that neat sum, you could install high-speed Wi-Fi on every car in the train: riders would lose track of time as they surf the net or chat with friends. Alternatively, you could hire gorgeous supermodels to strut up and down the aisles of the train handing out free glasses of wine. You’d find that passengers would beg to extend the trip by 40 minutes, not cut it! Perspective is everything.
Naturally, the theme of the TED event got me thinking how my perspective on Lebanon has changed, if at all, since I arrived here nearly three years ago. Or more broadly, have my habits evolved because of a change of perspective? The answer is irrevocably yes on both counts.
When I was a mere vacationer in Lebanon, I used to ignore every fault I encountered or simply dismiss it as the ravages of war. Electricity outages? Limited water supply? Expensive mobile phone plans? Pothole-ridden roads? I could look past all these infrastructural shortcomings because the country was emerging from a long and grueling war. Not only that, but come summer’s end, I would go back to the US and not have to worry about these hiccups year-round. But living here has lent me a totally different, more critical, perspective. The war ended 20+ years ago, so why are we still plagued by 12 hours of electricity shortfall a day? Lebanon gets abundant rainfall every year, as the past three winters have proven to me, so why are we still pumping water from cisterns? And why are we lagging behind almost every country in the world with our heinously slow internet speeds? A good chunk of our salaries get axed off as taxes to the government, so why aren’t those roads getting a fresh coat of pavement? Everything becomes more personal and less romantic when you’re a paying citizen. And for the record, I’m absolutely sick of pardoning every grievance with the “you’re-in-Lebanon” number. When did Lebanon become such a reference in failure anyway?
My habits, too, have substantially altered since I permanently settled here. I used to drive defensively just to keep up with the Lebanese traffic. My mom compared my driving to a soldier going to combat, as I would perpetually change lanes to find the fastest one, or I wouldn’t yield to a car attempting to turn into my lane. In short, I was attempting to mimic the Lebanese driving mentality—when in Rome, do as the Romans, right? Well, I realized that this approach only wore me out and deflated my mood. I’d come home from work unable to make cheerful conversation with my family. And for what? Was I some sort of traffic mercenary? Why did I let something as permanent and immutable as traffic affect my upbeat disposition? I decided to change my approach, to be vigilant, sure, but to be docile and let other cars pass in front of me. I no longer change lanes unnecessarily, and today I am willing to take a more congested road because it is direct rather than weasel my way through narrow side streets plagued with potholes. This has really given me peace of mind, and more importantly, reduced my risk of an accident on the road. Speeding in traffic shaves a few minutes off your commute at best, and that simply isn’t worth it. Not only that, but for the past year, I’ve been leaving home at 7am to arrive downtown around 7.30. I slot in a brisk half-hour walk before clocking in at the office at 8. How’s that for efficiency?
I must warn you, though, that shifting perspectives can shift outlooks to the positive or negative, just as I’ve witnessed. But try to be a pragmatic optimist. For times when you can’t bear rush hour, opt for happy hour. When there’s not enough water to wash your hair, go to the salon and get pampered. Lousy internet speeds at home? A coffee shop won’t disappoint. When life (or Lebanon) hands you lemons, squeeze a few wedges over your tabbouleh. It’ll taste better. Trust me.