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The power of perspective

Tuesday May 28, 2013 Written by Published in Raro on my mind

When life gives you lemons, well, add sugar and make lemonade.

Like most overused and underappreciated clichs, this sums up a fairly profound concept. It’s the secret to happiness, if ever there was one. It’s about perspective, which, really, is the only thing about our lives we can control.

We can’t control our circumstances. Life happens – the good, the bad, the triumph, the tragedy – and we’re just along for the ride.

We laugh, we fall in love, we celebrate new beginnings. We also get sick, we get hurt, we lose people we love. Life gives us reasons to smile – an Arorangi sunset, the birth of a baby, precious time spent with a grandmother on her veranda. But it also throws us curveballs – natural disasters, a friend’s betrayal, freak accidents, death.

Much of what we experience, we can’t control. We can control, however, the way we react to it. We can control our perspective.

This is one of those seemingly simple lessons we spend our lives learning, forgetting, and re-learning.

I re-learned it last week from a timid 18-year-old girl.

I met her for coffee – a brief, casual affair – and walked away from that caf thinking about perspective. It’s the difference between complaining about the sour lemons we’ve been handed and proactively making them into something palatable, even sweet, like lemonade.

I met with this young girl because I was writing a story about an event she’s co-ordinating at a local high school (the American equivalent of college). She’s organising something called Mix It Up At Lunch, which will assign students to certain seats in the cafeteria at lunchtime. The seating will be random, and the point is to force kids who wouldn’t normally socialise to sit together and chat.

This sounds easy enough, but for teenaged kids whose worlds revolve around their mates, it’s a big ask. As I’m writing this, the event hasn’t yet happened, but its 18-year-old mastermind is busy getting her plan publicised, recruiting volunteers to help her man the cafeteria door, and hoping for the best.

She’s a visionary, this girl. She wants to change the world, and she wants to start inside the very school she was forced to leave.

This girl, whose name I’ll withhold out of respect for her, has a brilliant mind, a kind smile, and awkward mannerisms. She is smart, but she is by no means socially adept. She enjoys video games, martial arts, and studying philosophy. She is not what you’d call “popular,” but she’s far more interesting than anyone you would.

Four years ago, the14-year-old girls in her class couldn’t see her for what she was. They bullied her, threatened her, laughed at her, and made fun of her, bonding over their shared xenophobia and malice. This girl was scared, sad, and self-conscious. She stopped going to school, and started doing her studies from home.

But the experience awakened something in her. Having been marginalised and made to feel inferior, she understood how it felt to be different, and to be excluded as a result.

She discovered a passion for civil rights, and sought volunteer opportunities in organisations devoted to social justice.

“I didn’t want anyone to have to feel the way I did,” she said to me, her eyes looking through me and into her past, her voice distant.

She took it upon herself to teach tolerance. She decided to become a civil rights lawyer. And she organised Mix It Up At Lunch, because “change has to start somewhere”, she said.

For this girl, change has to start in the place she experienced some of her darkest moments. She was bullied, but instead of crying or complaining or feeling sorry for herself – well, maybe she did, but only for a time –she took charge of her future and used her misfortune to help other people and to make the world a better place.

She was handed a big bag of lemons, but she made lemonade. She might be young and the event she’s organising might be unglamorous, but I think all of us can look to both for inspiration.

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