As a new year arrives we often look back to events of the passing year, searching for a bit of perspective. It’s as if we’re seeking to weigh our recent life events in the context of passing time. But what is perspective, really?
One sense of the term speaks of what an artist does to create an impression of depth in a painting—as he or she creates the illusion of a third dimension on the two dimensions of a flat canvas. The technique treats every feature in the picture as fitting within a set of imaginary lines that lead to a disappearing spot on an imagined horizon. In pictures with people included, the human figures are painted in a way that sustains this illusion: larger images are taken to be nearer while the smaller are seen as distant. As we all know, a good artist can orchestrate these tools with splendid effect.
But does this bit of artistic invention speak to what we mean by gaining perspective at the end of a year? Is it an incidental overlap of terms, or an analogy that works in both settings?
Another way to ask is this: does temporal perspective—our pondering the turn of a year—suggest that our important experiences are like an illusion that causes some experiences to become less significant, with diminished meaning, simply because time has gone by? Does time actually heal all wounds? Does time deplete our moments of joy? Or are these very different matters?
I believe they must be different in at least one key sense. One perspective is a physical illusion and the other is a relational reality—a matter of the heart. As we speak of an artist’s perspective we treat the objects of physical vision as commodities: as objects that stand either nearer to us or as farther from us. In matters of relational perspective, on the other hand, it’s not really a matter of physical or temporal distance that makes the difference. It has everything to do, instead, with what or who we love the most.
I’d like to press this point, but first let’s acknowledge that in real life any dramatic event—say, a birth or a death—eventually loses intensity. Even important moments are eventually swallowed by other life issues, thus becoming smaller in the context of more immediate concerns. For instance, even the simple need to go shopping eventually catches our attention after we’ve felt the grief of a funeral service. The multiplied changing of diapers eventually buffers the original joy of a new birth.
Yet it’s not as if the pain of loss or the joy of gain is really muted by the passage of time. Instead we find that other lesser events start to crowd out the emotional attention they once commanded. So the difference in relational perspective is here: the moment I pause to consider how important a given relationship is, that relationship is able to return immediately to its full size. For instance, I lost my father more than two decades ago, yet on occasions I’ll quietly visit his grave and he comes back to me again. The time hasn’t reduced my love. Nor do the tears of grief ever disappear.
What I find, then, is that the end of a year lets me brush away all the collected stuff of buying or selling things; the mowing, painting, reading, writing, and cooking; the countless hours of television, web-searching, or video entertainments; all the time-filling travels whether by auto or aircraft; and it lets me savor what really matters most: my relationships. What I love most comes into view whenever I pause to ask, “Who was really important to me this year?”
It’s in that moment that I gain my greatest perspective. And the invitation of Christ to love God above all else then makes the greatest sense. His love is what we were made for. It never gets smaller; and it is wholly timeless. It is in the context of that faithful love that we can also see all our other relationships as providential gifts from this giver of all that is good; and we enjoy them even more in light of the bond of his shared love.
On that note I wish you all a wonderful new year, all in Christ’s great love!