Literature sheds light on perspective in human relations

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, March 12, 2015

“Lewis and Tolkien have taught me much about disagreeing respectfully”
—Elaine Phillips

A major factor in people getting along together in life concerns perspective and confusion over what is literal and what is metaphor in sacred writings.

This is where an understanding of literature in general can shed some light, says one of our knowledgeable Cochrane coffee companions.

“Great authors can teach us much about perspective as they address a variety of enduring topics,” writes Elaine Phillips.

Elaine will be discussing lessons on perspective from literature in this week’s session of her free public lecture series, “Out of This World,” at Cochrane’s Nan Boothby Library.

In particular, she will consider symbols and spiritual imagery in the fantasy writings of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and others whose contributions in both print and film have vividly informed our worldviews in recent years. (See my column for Jan. 2, 2014.)

Aware of her particular insights into last week’s column on terrorism and response, as illustrated by a landscape photo whose interpretation depended heavily on perspective, I asked her if she’d mind commenting at some length.

She graciously agreed, as follows:

IN LAST WEEK’S COLUMN you posted the photo by Gerald Kaquitts of the dominant “wilderness” with majestic Mt. Yamnuska in the “far distance.” In reality though, the magnificent mountain was on the photographer’s doorstep. The lens he chose to capture the scene in his memory made all the difference. The “dry mudhole only a few metres across” loomed larger than the splendour of reality.

Just as Gerald encouraged you to rise above distress and to see life as an eagle might as it soared overhead, so he encouraged me.

This time last year, my friend and I were in a car accident in Calgary. Although my injuries were relatively minor, they have certainly caused moments of major distress, the worst being my inability to travel to be with my beloved mother before her unexpected death in December. One tool I am learning to use as I embrace life’s ongoing triumphs and tragedies is perspective.

Your column addressed many issues, and other readers will no doubt highlight those, but let me add my voice. March 12 at 6:30 p.m. I will be speaking at the Nan Boothby Library on the topic of themes and symbols in literature.

My favourite authors to include are C.S. Lewis and Tolkien, loved by many who attend my lectures, and because of the diverse nature of our audience I also highlight current fantasy authors whose books are either well known or will be in time.

I believe great authors can teach us much about perspective as they address a variety of enduring topics: the nature and importance of love, of the immortality of the soul, of the power of community, of the virtues of friendship. The list goes on – and the riches to be mined merely increase upon rereading. It’s as Rabbi Osadchey said in your column: “Who is wise? The person who learns from everyone.”

Books – stories – open the doorway into worlds which hold familiar truths, but which we are sometimes hesitant to enter because we lack the right perspective. Just as we can glean infinite wisdom from history and from the present, likewise we can learn much from wise characters – even if they are fictional.

In last week’s column you spoke of the dangers of radicalization, sown through marginalization and isolation. This is a theme commonly pursued in literature, as is the need to reach out to neighbours across religious and ethnic lines. In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, J.K. Rowling gives one of her characters, Kingsley Shacklebolt, these memorable lines:

“I’d say it’s one short step from ‘Wizards first’ to ‘Purebloods first’ and then to ‘Death Eaters’ ... We’re all human, aren’t we? Every human life is worth the same, and worth saving” (Deathly Hallows, 440).

As is the hope of your columns, stories are able to “celebrate the common good among our common humanity,” even as we agree to disagree in ways that are respectful and life-honouring.

In my literature lectures, listeners hold vastly diverse views – sometimes disagreeing passionately about what books to read or not to read. I share my own views as well as those of the authors we study, and readers bring to the table their differing perspectives. While I respect the varied opinions of well-read friends whose choices do not mirror my own, I too often find we base our beliefs on presuppositions we cart along to the conversation. Lewis and Tolkien have taught me much about disagreeing respectfully.

—Elaine Phillips, Cochrane

THANKS, ELAINE. Elaine is speaking on symbols and spiritual imagery in the writings of Tolkien, Lewis and others March 12, 6:30–8:00 p.m., at the Nan Boothby Library.


© 2015 Warren Harbeck

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