The Rashomon of Life

How do you look at life? That is to say, what perspective do you have?

Whatever it is, it’s the right one. And the wrong one. As any film buff will tell you, the classic Rashomon proves that the same event can be related 100% truthfully by any number of witnesses – all of whom have totally different stories about what happened.

Therefore, if you don’t like the way you see your life, all you need to do is change your perspective, right? Certainly you can imagine that to an orphan beggar in Calcutta or a factory worker in China your life of leisure (at least, enough leisure to read this blog) looks like the greatest luxury. And as I pointed out in this week’s Water Practice post, the mere fact that we have potable water easily available puts our lives far into the realm of luxury compared to most.

It Ain’t Enough

The problem is, hearing “You should be happy with what you have, because someone else has it worse” is about as effective as “Finish your oatmeal, there are people starving in China!” Because you are not one of those people, it’s difficult to really get a perspective on their lives. Even more than that, they really can’t have a perspective on your life, either. Sure, you have a roof, and food, and clothes, and even nice shoes; but you also have bills, constant drains on your attention, an ulcer from worrying about said bills, and the pressure of trying to maintain a standard of living that is increasingly more difficult.

photo by Matt Hutchinson, CC Flickr Pool

I once dated a woman who was an executive assistant to a millionaire real estate developer in Chicago. He let us spend a weekend in one of his houses, enjoying all the luxuries. When I commented to her about how nice it must be to not have to worry about money, she gave me a surprised look. “Are you kidding?” she said. “He worries about money a lot more than you do.” She waved her hand around the supremely appointed furnishings, out the window to the pool. “He’s got to keep making enough money to support all this, in a failing real estate market. He’s way more stressed than you are about money.”

So really, you’re damned either way: sure, somebody always has it worse. Somebody also always has it better. And all of you have your own burdens and stresses to carry and work through.

If that kind of “perspective” doesn’t work, what can you do?


A fun buzzword life coaches bandy about is the “reframe”. To take the metaphor literally, it’s the idea that if the picture is crappy, put a nicer frame around it to suddenly render it nicer. I’m not sure how much faith I have in it – to me, if the picture’s crappy, it’s crappy, regardless of how you gild it – but it certainly seems to work for some people. And I do believe it can be an interesting way to discover the direction where a shift in perspective may be needed.

Some people seem to think that a “childlike” perspective is the best. That all we need to do is regain some of the wonder and astonishment at the world around us. That doesn’t work for me. First of all, once you know something, you can’t un-know it (that’s one of the oldest stories in Western culture, after all). Besides that, part of being a child is irresponsibility, a lack of consequences for actions, and a vastly simplified understanding of the fundamental emotions of life.

You don’t see all the layers to life when you’re a child. While that may be simpler, it also loses some of the richness, and some of the lessons that life can teach us.

For example, I’ve been learning a lot about the concepts of “trust” and “intimacy” from some excellent relationship and sexuality educators in San Francisco and Los Angeles. The more I learn, the less I think I actually understand about the terms. In fact, even my definitions reveal some problems:

Trust is when you believe, completely, that someone would not hurt you.

Intimacy is when you make yourself vulnerable to someone else, and they are vulnerable to you.

Not too bad a description, right? Sure, there may be more, but I’m betting many of you are nodding your heads and saying something like Not exactly how I’d put it, but ok, that works. We are in the Rashomon of life, all of us looking at the same thing and putting our own spin on it.

courtesy Amy Loves Yah, CC Flickr Pool

Here’s the thing: both of those definitions are built around negative connotations. Hurt and the ability to be hurt, vulnerable, are the core meanings.

When I noticed that, I thought ok, let’s try and re-frame in a positive light.

And I couldn’t. Still can’t, in fact. The closest I could come was the idea that when you have trust and intimacy with someone, you can completely relax with them. Ooh! As I wrote that, another positive word came to mind: safe.

By no means does that mean the re-frame worked. My definition of safe? Can’t be hurt. Back in the negative! But at least I have a direction to look, a chance to take a look at how I interact with others, and my own ability to “relax” and maybe even be “vulnerable” or “trust”.

Whatever that means. Feel free to let me know, if you can.


1 thought on “The Rashomon of Life”

  1. For me, being ‘vulnerable’ means letting yourself be open to the possibility of new experiences. Yes, I admit those experiences COULD turn out to be negative (let’s hope not), but you can learn something from any experience and increased knowledge is generally a positive either way.

    One can find both the negative or the positive in most situations if you want to dig deep enough.

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