Many years ago, I was taught that “perspective dictates prescription.” Perhaps the word “prescription” caught my attention first, since my grandfather and two of my uncles are graduates of the University at Buffalo School of Pharmacy. But to tie the thought of prescription to the sense of perspective was new to me, both illuminating and fascinating.

Hence, it follows that how I see events determines how I plot my best course into and through them. And since perspectives are often unique and culturally skewed, this principle can help us understand why people behave and make decisions so differently. Judging ourselves or others as “perceiving wrongly” is very common, but certainly not very helpful. I prefer to think that what can lead us to a better understanding of each other, and a more profound convergence of thought, is the practice of changing one’s perspective.

When someone shows up at a gathering with unmatched socks in Buffalo, it is an opportunity for some light-hearted teasing. Here in Rwanda, I recently noticed a man standing in front of me with unmatched gray socks; then I looked at the man next to him who had no socks. My initial thought of, “Oops, I wonder if he knows he picked out different socks?” changed to, “Wow, he’s fortunate to have two similar socks since the next guy has none!” How quickly my perception changed.

When I asked my parents if I could attend a Catholic high school, I felt a little guilty because of the tuition costs. My folks, of course, assented and worked to maintain and balance the family budget. I am sure it caused some financial and physical stress to send three children to Catholic schools. Here in Rwanda, I watched in awe as a mother and her two sons labored seven hours a day for two weeks carrying cow manure from the stable to a bean field about a hundred yards away. They did this in order to earn the money for the boys to attend their final year of primary school. My perception of hardship for the sake of education certainly has been refocused by their effort.

Not long ago, I was staying at a house with some college students. One was taking a sociology course and asked if I could help her understand a chapter in her textbook. One of the topics covered was a study on the contentment of people in various cultures. The theory being offered stated that there is a higher percentage of unhappy people in upwardly mobile societies. This is the result of constantly comparing themselves with those who have more than they do; an “upward comparison.”

The study found that people in less developed and less urban environments tended to be happier. These people know that there are many around them who are worse off; a “downward comparison.” Once again, it is a matter of perspective making the difference.

The practice of looking at things from another point of view is a choice. I have met some people who have no interest at all in the “how” or “why” of others. For me, it is like an adventure to discover new ways to view things. Trying to take in the “big picture” and to broaden my perspective is a challenge and often rather humbling. Time and again, I have found out that my original stance was mistaken. Both my behaviors and my sense of well-being have profited from the lessons I have learned while trying to see things from other perspectives.