The ways in which people interpret the world have always amazed and intrigued me. How two people can look at the same situation, be armed with the same knowledge about it, and yet still come out with different conclusions (aka ‘politics’). How two people can have a very similar experience and yet react in wildly different ways. How something that can floor one person won’t bother another.
But even more subtly: how the individual ways in which we think about the world – our personal hermeneutics – help us to see things through a unique lens.
This has been on my mind this week because two small things happened which made me laugh, but they also reminded me to challenge my way of viewing the world and to think about the assumptions I’m bringing into each situation.
Thing One: Cosmos
The first was when I was reading a book, and the author said something along the lines of
In the evenings, I like to settle down with a couple of Cosmos…
Reading at my super-fast speed (Reid-speed, for the Criminal Minds fans among us), I first of all read the sentence as “In the evenings, I like to settle down with the cosmos” and I thought “Oh cool, someone who enjoys considering the wonders of the universe.” In my mind, the character was leaning back in an armchair thinking about the stars, the origins of the known universe; perhaps positing a theory of everything.
But when I carried on reading, that didn’t fit with the rest of the sentence.
So then I slowed down and read it again, and I thought “Oh! She means issues of Cosmopolitan magazine!”
And so my mind-image resolved into someone sitting with a glass of wine and a stack of glossies, doing that thing you just have to do sometimes when your brain needs to switch off for a while.
But then the next paragraph didn’t make sense, because why would reading too many issues of Cosmo give you a hangover?
And then finally I realised what the author had actually meant: drinking Cosmos. Cosmopolitan cocktails.
Riiiiiiiiiight. Suddenly the rest of the chapter made sense.
Thing Two: Outlander
The second thing was that I started watching Outlander recently, and so far I’m enjoying it. I love it mainly because of the beautiful scenery – it makes me ache for the Highlands. When I was a child living in Scotland, a man my mother knew once gave me a paperweight that had a picture of some Scottish mountains in it and the words “My heart’s in the Highlands wherever I go.” Overly sentimental, sure, but still a bit true. I hated living in Glasgow because it’s a shithole (although I’ve been informed it’s improved since I left… I’ll take your word for it) and I hated living in the west lowlands because the town we were in was a dump (which hasn’t improved much since), but the Highlands… ah, the Highlands.
Outlander’s set there, and it’s pretty.
Sadly the standing stones aren’t real, they’re props, so you can’t visit them. They are splendid, though I wonder why they didn’t use the atmospheric beauties at Calanais.
Scotland Now has a list of locations from the series that you can actually visit.
But I digress…
I was swapping TV recommendations with a friend the other day, and I told him about Outlander. “It’s good,” I said. “I mean I’m only a few episodes in so far, but I’m enjoying it.”
“Is that that Scottish thing?” he replied.
I confirmed that it was. He said they filmed bits of it near where he lives (he’s in a beautiful remote part of Scotland, much to my envy).
“I was going to watch that” he told me, “but isn’t it all romantic? I’ve heard it’s about a woman who’s caught between two men. It didn’t sound much like my kind of thing.”
Described like that, it didn’t sound much like my kind of thing either. I assured him it’s not particularly romantic.
“It’s about a woman who gets sucked back in time by some magickal standing stones, and then she ends up being forced to be the healer in a castle in the Highlands. She meets lots of witches and stuff, it’s all about superstition and suspicion and religion and magick. It’s cool.”
He said he might watch it, and I thought nothing of it until I watched another episode later and realised I’d been watching the same show as the person who’d told him it was romantic, but I’d also been watching a different show. I’d been watching my show, and they’d been watching theirs.
You see, the woman who gets sucked back in time – Claire is her name – is married. It’s just after WWII, and she and her husband have gone to the Highlands for a short break before he starts a new position in Oxford. They’ve been apart for five years because they’ve both been helping with the war effort, and the point of the holiday is to solidify their relationship again.
Then Claire goes to the stones at Craigh na Dun (not a real place) to watch a Druid ritual, and she gets pulled back in time to the 1700s-ish. That’s when she accidentally becomes a castle’s live-in healer (which sounds like the kind of thing that’d happen to me. Step out for some shopping, suddenly I live in a castle and am the neighbourhood witch.)
Sure, there’s a man in the castle with whom she has a rapport. I’m not very far into the series yet, but I can see they’re going to become romantically intertwined. So yeah, I guess there’s a romantic subplot. But to me, that’s secondary to the story. The story is about Claire, and her desperate confusion about being pulled into a time that isn’t hers. It’s about how she has to be flexible, to take the knowledge she has of 20th-century medicine (luckily in the army she was a nurse) and apply it to the very limited products and methods available in her new life. It’s about how people in the town assume children who have eaten a poisonous plant are infected with demons, rather than looking for a more mundane cause. It’s about her friendship with a local witch, who is suspicious of her and trying to work out where she’s really from. It’s about the laird of the castle and the way he rules, and how that sets up society to be wildly different from what she’s used to.
But if I were someone else – the person who told my friend it’s a romantic tale, for instance – I probably wouldn’t say that. I’d say it’s about the relationship between a committed monogamous couple, and how it can be challenged and changed by time apart. It’s about how the small things in a relationship can help strengthen it as much as any large gesture. It’s about meeting someone and seeing something special in them even when you don’t want to. I suspect that later in the series it’s about being torn between two loves.
The truth, of course, is that it’s all of those things, and probably more which neither of us are seeing because they’re not part of our personal hermeneutics.
How Do You See?
These two experiences made me think about what I see in things. How I bring myself into every experience I have, even everyday stuff like reading a novel or watching a TV show. I know this already, of course; how could I not bring my own expectations and beliefs and preconceptions into things? But it’s interesting when it’s sharply pointed out to you by someone else contradicting what you were thinking.
It can be an interesting exercise to start trying to notice, not just what you’re seeing, but how you’re seeing. If you had to describe a TV show you watch to a friend, what would you say? What might someone else say if they were a ravenous romantic, or a morose misanthrope, or a skeptical philosopher?
This even works when you’re just walking down the street. When we were kids, we saw things differently. Partly this was because we were younger, less experienced, probably more innocent. Partly it was physical: we were lower to the ground, so it was easier to notice that little shiny bug in the grass. Partly it was that we were less busy, so we could stop to look at the leafy moth on the wall, and think about what it might be like to be that moth, and give it a name, and look out for it next time.
These childlike noticings are things I actively try to make myself do still. It can bring a bit of magic into the day and remind you of how you used to experience the world. I spent many years walking around barefoot, for example, which meant I used to have to watch the ground a lot of the time. This is a habit that hasn’t entirely left me, so I tend to notice more things on the ground than a lot of people. But I also notice details, like fallen leaves the colour of an apple I just ate, or a solitary ant trying to make its way back to the nest. For me, this makes my days a bit more fun. For you it might make them boring, I dunno.
In any case, I think trying to understand what we’re seeing and why, and sometimes trying to flip the result around to view things from a different perspective, can be helpful and interesting. I’m going to try to do it more.