Many popular images are intended to demonstrate that how we view things is a matter of perspective. For example, the image of a glass of water: the optimist says it is half-full, and the pessimist says it is half-empty. All a matter of perspective, we are told triumphantly.

Except that the perspective cannot end with the glass as is. The water in the glass is at a specific level and how it got that way we don’t know, but it matters. In real life we tend to accept conditions and situations because their mere existence gives them credence; their longevity or their persistence tends to legitimize them as necessary and real. As Hegel insisted, “What is real is right, what is right is real.”

Both perspectives of looking at the glass of water are looking not at the past or even the present but extrapolating into the future. The optimist says, “It can always be filled up,” while the pessimist replies, “It can always be emptied altogether.” Perspective is not just a matter of what exists here and now. Perspective must take into account a variety of factors.

In Hindu tradition, the story of the person entering a house at dusk and mistaking a coil of rope for a serpent is an old parable. The story illustrates not just how we mistakenly perceive things (that are remedied with time) but how we respond emotionally to misperceptions and assumptions.

The issue is not the physical limits of our optics and brain but the response that extends our personality and values. The apparent snake frightens us to no end, our heart racing, our palms sweating, blood rushing to our head. That is all physiology and much of it out of our control. But worse is how we implement subconsciously the values we have already cultivated. Do we prepare to strike violently with a shovel or whatever is at hand? Are we altogether paralyzed with indecision or fright? Do we run in fear? Or do we stay and observe just one fraction of a moment to allow comprehension to arise?

The snake and the rope is a parable for daily life experiences. Perspective has more to do with response than with action or miscalculation. Wise people doubt perception in the first place, not because they cannot judge or assess. Rather, they know that with values long cultivated and now steady and clear, all phenomena will fall into place for them. Judgment need not be instant or hasty. How long merely depends on how important the situation. And in many cases, the situation will end up being of low enough importance that the wise person will not have had to worry or be angry or be moved at all, as the situation merely falls away. Taoism considers inaction (wu wei) one of the highest virtues.

Nor is perspective a matter of cultures and societies and mores being relative; rather, these are expressions of physical and intellectual limitations, products of an unwise and unreflective collectivity. If we acknowledge the origins of ideas around us, we can begin to free ourselves from relativism. We are then able to organize what we perceive into a perspective that does not depend upon circumstance, accidentals, chance or the limitations of society, body, and mind.