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Elizabeth Gilbert On The Truth She's Learned About Perspective

We can see the world as grim or grand. It's up to each of us to decide.
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My beloved grandma Nini died in 1984. A few months after her funeral, her three adult children ― my aunt, my uncle, and my father ― gathered in their childhood home to see to their mother’s belongings. It was a sad job but an important one, and they were all feeling especially tenderhearted and unguarded that weekend.

At one point, they found themselves sitting around the old kitchen table, eating sandwiches and talking about the past. My uncle, the baby of the family, looked at the refrigerator and said, “I can still see Mom standing there, pouring me a glass of milk. Do you remember that sweet thing she always used to do whenever she got us a glass of milk? Remember how she’d take a tiny sip first, to make sure it wasn’t spoiled? Always looking out for us.”

My father, the analytical engineer of the family, raised his eyebrows. “No,” he said. “You are so wrong. Mom wasn’t sipping our milk to test it for freshness. She was sipping our milk because she always overfilled the glass. She had no sense of spatial relations. It used to drive me crazy.”

My brilliantly sardonic aunt looked at her two brothers like they were the biggest idiots she’d ever seen.

“You’re both wrong,” she said. “Mom was stealing our damn milk.”

So, what have we learned about my grandmother from this story? Was she a devoted caregiver, an incompetent dunderhead or someone who would steal the milk out of the mouths of her children? (Or maybe just an exceptionally thirsty woman.) The world will never know the truth.

But does the truth really matter?

I don’t think so.

The older I get, the less interested I am in investigating the truth about our lives, and the more interested I become in the way we see that truth. Because what seems to matter in the end is not so much what happens to us, but how we perceive what happens to us. That perception, ultimately, becomes the world that we will inhabit.

This is not to say we shouldn’t be honest. There are certainly instances in life when we must demand that painful truths be exposed and dealt with. And I’m definitely not making some Orwellian argument here, claiming that facts are not facts. Without a doubt, facts are facts. But facts can take us only so far. For instance: Everyone in my family agrees that my grandmother always sipped the milk. That’s a stone-cold fact. But what did her milk sipping mean? Ah, now we have entered into the realm of perspective, and now limitless interpretations are possible.

This is why two people -- or three, in the case of my dad and his siblings -- can experience the exact same circumstances in life and turn out completely different. A trauma that might make one person a monster can make another a hero. An incident that you might read as a gift, I might consider a curse. What I hear as a compliment, you might hear as an insult.

Listen, we’re not always in control of our fate—and that is a fact. You may be robbed or you may be blessed (or some combination of the two, most likely), but that’s not really the point. The point is: If you feel like you’re constantly being robbed, then you live in a world that’s all about constantly being robbed. And if you feel like you’re constantly being blessed, then you live in a world that’s all about constantly being blessed. What we usually see when we interpret our lives is nothing but ourselves—as the truth gets screened through a thousand-layer filter composed of all our weirdness and wonderfulness.

If we try to see things with the most generous eyes—searching for the truth, yes, but then bestowing upon that truth the brightest and kindest interpretation—we can learn how to perceive a more beautiful world. Do that, and I promise you this: You will get to live in one.

Elizabeth Gilbert is the author of,most recently, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear (Riverhead). Get up close and personal with Elizabeth Gilbert each month at youtube.com/oprahmagazine.

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