SOMEBODY SHOULD WRITE A BOOK called "101 Things That Change Your Perspective On Life."
At the top of my list -- and I suspect yours, too -- would be: a death or serious illness in the family; loss of one's own health; war.
Talk about having your perspective on life abruptly rearranged! These are the kinds of devastating events that rip away a person's ordinary priorities, substituting in their place a reordered sense of what is important in life.
And what isn't.
When confronted with the threat of life-altering loss and change, it seems fair to say most of us begin to look back, with a revisionist's eye, on things that once seemed important. And looking back over our lives from the perspective of crisis, most of us find that our needs and values have been altered radically: Buying the new car becomes less important; enjoying your children more urgent; ambitions grow less sharp and desires more mellow.
We notice the daily routines of life more -- all the things we once took for granted -- and draw a renewed sense of satisfaction from them: the sight of a son sleeping in his room; the cozy comfort of a kitchen at dinnertime; the familiar, early-morning aroma of strong coffee brewing; the shared family laughter when the gray-striped cat unknowingly sits on the sleeping ginger-colored cat.
We notice such things in times of crisis and we wonder: Why didn't I realize how lucky I was? Why didn't I appreciate what I had?
It seems to be one of life's crueler ironies that in order to appreciate what we have, we must be in danger of losing it.
Perspective. The dictionary defines it as "the relative importance of facts or matters from any special point of view."
Here are three examples of how perspective works:
In his 1990 State of the Union message a year ago, President Bush shared his reflections on becoming a grandfather for the 12th time, saying, "I held the little guy for the first time and the trouble at home and abroad seemed totally in perspective."
And a tragedy that recently struck the family of Maine governor John R. McKernan seems to have put life into perspective for an entire state. On Jan. 14, the governor's 20-year-old son collapsed into a coma after finishing a 2-mile jog. Doctors for the Dartmouth sophomore, who was hoping to make the college baseball team, call the likelihood of recovery remote. The whole state grieves; even the governor's toughest political opponents have muted their criticisms.
"It kind of has [Senate] members putting things in perspective," said Senate President Charles P. Pray -- who also has a 20-year-old son.
And an 85-year-old woman, looking back over her life from the vantage point of age and experience, had this to say about putting things in perspective: "Oh, I have had my moments, and if I had it to do over again, I'd have more of them. Just moments, one right after another, instead of living so many years ahead of each day."
Of course, it is one of life's hardest lessons: learning how to live in the present and not let the fears or hopes for the future dictate our actions, choices, feelings.
Anyone who doubts the wisdom of living life daily might gain some perspective from a visit to Arlington National Cemetery. It is difficult to stand there on a hillside -- as I recently did -- and see the 200,000 graves stretched out against the skyline without gaining perspective.
There is a lesson that only the dead can teach: Life is finite.
Maybe that's what Thoreau had in mind when he wrote: "To affect the quality of the day, that is the greatest art."
I have heard there is a kind of cicada whose entire life cycle lasts for only a day. The morning finds the cicada singing out his youth; in the heat of the noon hour he sounds out his love for the world; by mid-afternoon his song is of sadness at the waning of the day; at dusk he reminisces about his past; and by nightfall the cicada, in the dark, sings his final farewell.
Life's like that, too. A small shadow that runs across the day and disappears with the sunset.
Illness teaches us that. Death teaches us that. War teaches us that.
But perspective teaches us that it is possible to live a full life while we're living it. To seize the day; to savor the darkness as well as the light; to accept that in orderto know joy we must know sadness. And to sing to the end, as the cicada does, of all the small, daily realities that exist in our lives, moment by moment.