From the Editor: From where I sit

June 10, 2011

Paula MinaertBY PAULA MINAERT — We’ve all heard the expression, “One person’s trash is another person’s treasure.” I know this well. A blue-and-white ceramic lamp that a neighbor put out for the trash found a home in our living room.

I think the expression reflects a deeper reality, though. Two people can look at the same object and actually see totally different things. Here’s an example: cows. In this country, cows don’t figure much in the lives of those of us who don’t live on farms. We know they’re the source of beef, but otherwise, we see bovines mostly on our dishtowels and refrigerator magnets. But in India, real live cows are everywhere. They walk the streets freely; no one bothers them or eats them, because to the people they are holy. It’s the same animal – but it’s not.

We all see the world, then, through our own lens. Philosopher and theologian Bernard Lonergan called this lens our horizon, and said it is shaped by upbringing, culture and experience. Our horizon helps us function because it allows us to identify and categorize what’s around us. This is a piece of wood; we build with it; that is a plant; we cook it and eat it.

But no two individuals have exactly the same horizon. You share aspects of your horizon with people in your family and your culture, but everyone’s horizon is unique.

This dynamic operates here in Hyattsville as much as anywhere else. And it underlies some of our most thorny and controversial issues. For example, some people look at a chain link fence and see tacky. Others look at it and see practical and affordable. A yard filled with sunflowers can be either choked with tall weeds or a delightful retreat. And a man working on his car in his driveway can be handy and thrifty or bringing down the quality of the neighborhood. It all depends on your horizon, your point of view.

We tend to assume that our perceptions are the right ones. “Of course, this is what x or y means. Doesn’t everyone see it this way?”

Well, no. Everyone doesn’t. I may observe trash cans overflowing with plastic and cardboard and see a family that is wasteful and uncaring of the environment. Someone else may see people working hard to survive, and environmental issues just haven’t entered their worldview.

We tend to surround ourselves with people who have similar worldviews to our own, so our perceptions are confirmed. This reinforces the attitude of “Of course, this is how things are! Everyone I know sees it this way.”

But we have to live and interact with people who have different – sometimes very different – perceptions. And expectations. It’s not easy. I think the first step is to accept that our own horizon, our world, is not necessarily normative. I am not saying everything is relative (and neither is Lonergan). I am saying it might be most productive to simply try to understand other people’s horizons, to sit where they sit. It’s a start.