I've been spending a lot of time lately thinking about perspective – about how the way we choose to look at things influences what we see, and the extent to which our point of view is in fact a matter of choice, or alternatively, something that is simply beyond our control. Perspective has even become the topic of my gradu. What exactly are you talking about right now, you might well be asking yourselves? Allow me to explain. Like most people in Finland, winter is a time when my perspective on life changes quite a lot. The drop in temperature combined with the seemingly ever-present darkness often makes me feel lethargic, even depressed. Several years ago something happened that made wintertime in Finland even more of an ordeal for me than ever before – my job at the post office was switched to the morning shift. Now I've never been a morning person, but during a Finnish winter I'm even less of a morning person than I normally am. All of a sudden I was required to get up at 5:45 every morning in order to be able to begin work at 7am. To put it bluntly, it was hell.
To say that my entire perspective on life was affected would be an understatement. I dragged myself out of bed each morning and dozed my way through seemingly endless shifts at work. I began taking a nap in the changing rooms during my lunch-breaks, and I regularly fell asleep during afternoon lectures. Once I got home at around 4 or 5pm, I would typically be so tired that I'd literally be unable to keep my eyes open, and would immediately fall asleep. But of course I would only be able to sleep for a couple of hours, so when I went to bed again for the night at around 11pm I'd be wide awake, get a terrible sleep, and wake up exhausted again, only for the cycle to repeat itself.
This year I was determined that things were going to change, that my whole perspective on life during winter would have to change. I decided that exercise was the key. During the summer I generally get a lot of exercise – with no classes I have plenty of time to go to the gym, and I ride my bike everywhere. But once the fall rolls around and classes start back, suddenly I don't seem to have the time or energy for the gym, and once the snow arrives riding doesn't seem like so much fun either. This fall was different however. No matter how busy I was, I forced myself to go to the gym twice a week – no more, no less. I kept riding my bike to work each day, and once the snow arrived I bought myself new winter tyres and just kept riding.
The difference was remarkable. Riding to work at 6:30am in winter is damn cold as you can well imagine, but once I arrived at work I was wide awake. I had so much more energy – I felt sharp and alert during the day, and once I was finished at work I had no problem either going to the gym or coming home to study during the afternoons. Suddenly I was able to stay awake until my normal bedtime, and as a result I slept much better and woke up feeling energised. My choice to make one relatively small change to my daily routine last fall had subsequently changed my perspective on virtually every aspect of my life. I was happier at work and more productive at school. I was fitter than I'd been in ages and I was saving money too by not having to take the bus to work. Everything just seemed better.
Then on New Year's Day my bike was stolen from the courtyard of my apartment building. Bike theft is obviously not uncommon in Finland; this wasn't even the first bike that I'd had stolen myself, so as shocking as it was, at the same time it also wasn't entirely unexpected. What was unexpected however was the extent to which it affected me. More than just the simple fact of losing a bike, for some reason I came to feel the impact of this one event on almost every aspect of my life. Certainly I felt the impact financially – I had just spent around €150 on new tyres and otherwise getting the bike ready for winter, and of course the money I had counted on saving by not having to take the bus for the next few months was also gone, and this was depressing. But this depression then seemed to leak into other areas of my life. Whilst I had been feeling great about work and how my gradu was coming along just the day before, suddenly the thought of having to endure even one more day at the Post Office felt unbearable, and my gradu now seemed like nonsense that was going precisely nowhere.
For around three weeks I wallowed in a state of depression that I couldn't seem to control. Over a bike – a bike! But somehow the loss of that bike came to represent my life as a whole. The message I received was loud and clear; “there's no point trying to change things for the better, 'cos just when you think you've succeeded, life is gonna come along and kick you right in the ass.” Try as I might, I couldn't maintain a proper sense of perspective. I couldn't see this one event for what it really was; an unfortunate, isolated incident – a temporary setback, that in no way reflected on any other aspect of my life, a life that until that moment had in all honesty been rolling along pretty nicely all things considered. To what degree was this new and far less positive perspective of mine a matter of choice? What could I have done to “see” things differently?
Who knows how long I would have continued in this funk; luckily I didn't have to find out. A couple of weeks later I got a message from a friend asking if I'd like to catch up for lunch that weekend. When I arrived on the day he mentioned that two other friends of ours would be joining us. Then whilst we were all at lunch, they presented me with an unexpected present – over a dozen of my friends, upon hearing of the loss of my bike, had decided to organise a collection for me. The proceeds of this collection would be more than enough to replace my bike, and on top of that they had bought me two first-class bike locks as well.
What did I learn from this experience? That I'm incredibly lucky to have an amazing group of friends? No, I already knew that. What I learned is that the way in which we view our lives is always a matter of personal choice. Because over the previous few weeks, whilst I had been wallowing in misery, a bunch of my friends had taken it upon themselves to do something incredibly thoughtful and generous to make my life better. Of course I hadn't known that at the time, but then that's the whole point really isn't it? Just as life can be unexpectedly bad when things don't go our way, it can just as easily be unexpectedly good when they do, and believing that one particular incident is somehow representative of our entire lives is as stupid as it is false. And it was a choice that I made to think that way.
The gift I was given that day was much more than a bike and a reminder of how incredibly lucky I am to have the friends that I do. I was given a lifelong reminder that at those inevitable times when everything seems dark and hopeless, I need to stop and think again. Life is full of real hardship and genuine struggles, and I certainly don't mean to suggest that all of our problems would magically disappear if only we took the time to stop for a moment and think about puppies. What I do mean to say however, is that there is no justification for exaggerating our problems beyond their proper boundaries – by allowing a single setback to subsequently influence every aspect of our entire lives. This is not always easy, and I certainly have to admit that I could use some effective strategies for maintaining a proper sense of perspective at times myself. But thanks to my friends, I now feel like I at least have a place to start. The next time I feel myself slipping into a state of depression, I'll be able to think about what happened the last time I felt that way, and hopefully I'll then be able to put things into their proper perspective. After all, the way we choose to look at life is exactly that, a choice.