I was late to work this morning but it was not my fault. Robert E. Lee would not stop asking questions. I felt compelled to answer the old gentlemen, soon found myself sucked into our discussion and lost track of time.
I met General Lee early in my life when I developed an interest in the American Civil War and those who lived through that time. Lee, obviously a central figure, caught my eye as being both admirable and unfathomable. I put down some of this latter trait to the length of time between us. Who today, for example, would abandon a successful military career and join in an insurrection they didn’t support, all because of loyalty to their state? I have ties to both Alabama and Texas but when either starts acting crazy they can’t count on me to follow. Lee is a fascinating historical figure and I spent a lot of time trying to get inside his head.
Somewhere along the way I developed the habit of having the old general accompany me whenever I was out and about. I would ask questions and he would give vague answers. In turn, he would comment on our surroundings. It made it easier for me to study him. But there was an unexpected benefit. His eyes were older than mine–by about 150 years–so I was often reminded of how much I take for granted in today’s world.
For example, how do you explain an airplane to someone from the 1860’s? Or the internet, computers, smart phones, cell phones, telephones, light bulbs, lasers or even electricity? (Yes, they had telegraphs in the Civil War, and even prototype light bulbs but not all the attendant infrastructure needed to light our homes, keep CityVille up and Angry Birds in the air.)
In fact, that’s what delayed me this morning. I wandered through my home, trying to explain everything to my ethereal guest and was struck by the central role that electricity plays in our lives. Virtually every aspect of my life was governed by electricity: water (pumps and heaters), gas (pumps), heating and cooling, communication, entertainment, banking, home security. Even our ‘horseless carriages’ depend upon it.
Talking with those outside your community (or time, as with my conversations with General Lee) gives you the chance to see your world anew. Of course, you don’t have to travel back in time or across the world to experience this. Simply talk to a teenager and see things differently. Try explaining to a teen today what was so revolutionary about Polaroid film. Or how civilization existed when the lights were out (or before they were invented).
We tend to see others as low-fidelity copies of ourselves, complete with our mindsets, prejudices and viewpoints. We know instantly when they are ‘doing us’ incorrectly and judge them accordingly. By reaching out to others we allow ourselves to see our world through their eyes. And that changes everything.
This video illustrates the power of that old cliche called paradigm shifting. The next time you meet someone, imagine that you’ve been granted the power to peek at the last page of their book, to see how their life will end. Imagine they will be gone before the sun rises again. Then see how that changes your perception of them.
Now, ask the important question–why can’t we see this way all the time?