What a few cups of tea will teach you: a lesson in perspective

Image: Paul Skorupskas

Image: Paul Skorupskas

This fall, I was at the Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival for an evening of films and photography. The last film of the night was a documentary by Jennifer Jordan called 3,000 Cups of Tea in which Jordan, along with her husband/cinematographer Jeff Rhoads, explored the 2011 allegations about Greg Mortenson’s financial misdeeds and his distortions of the truth.

Like me, you might remember reading the book, Three Cups of Tea. It is an inspirational memoir about Mortenson’s work building schools (primarily for girls) throughout Afghanistan and Pakistan. The book spent 220 weeks on The New York Times Best Seller List and by 2011 donors had contributed more than $70 million to the organization. When the 60 Minutes exposé came out, the world of Greg Mortenson was forever altered. He fell hard and fast. Funding to the Central Asia Institute declined significantly and Greg Mortenson was cast as a liar and a cheat. 
 I clearly remember when I first heard the fraud allegations. I paid attention to the news because I had been inspired by Greg Mortenson’s story and I saw so much value in his efforts to combat terrorism with education and opportunity. After hearing about the mismanagement of funds and the allegations about the fabrication of the stories Greg Mortenson shared in his book, I remember my heart sinking. I was disappointed to hear yet another story of a “hero” who had fallen from grace — an all-too-often theme in our world of celebrity and fame.

However, as I sat in the theatre that weekend, I was exposed to a side of the story that has been mostly overlooked by the mainstream media, and completely overlooked by me. Jordan’s documentary, 3,000 Cups of Tea, uncovered cracks and oversights in the story Krakauer and 60 Minutes shared that caused me to pause and question what I thought I knew. What I saw and heard was the story of a flawed yet passionate human who openly admitted to the mistakes and missteps that he took. Perhaps it was all the more powerful because Mortenson himself was in the audience with his two children. The tall, toque-wearing Mortenson talked about the gratitude he felt for Krakauer and 60 Minutes because, had they not ‘ruined’ his life, it certainly would have ended due to his rapidly declining health and the intense pressure of his schedule at the time. Now, he concedes, he has more time to get to know his children and to do work that matters to him (educating girls and women).

His passion was palpable.

As I listened to Mortenson’s impromptu talk, I was struck by how important it is to remain open to other’s perspectives. In 2011, I had quickly dismissed Mortenson and the value of his work with very little thought. I didn’t have the full story, nor did I seek it. True, Mortenson is not a friend of mine, nor is he completely innocent of all the allegations, but I would argue that my dismissal of him is something I repeat in my own day-to-day life.

After all, how often have I made judgments about others or a situation with very little real information to base it on? How often am I closed to other’s perspectives because they vary too much from my own?

Often enough.

Jumping to conclusions about people, or failing to be open to their perspectives, can have a real consequence in our lives. Life moves quickly, and we often don’t take the time to truly understand where others are coming from.

For Mortenson, he admits that he dismissed the perspectives of others who advised him to get his finances in order. Had he been more open to other’s perspectives, perhaps he wouldn’t have left his organization so vulnerable. Filmmaker Jennifer Jordan argues that had the 60 Minutes team truly taken the time to deepen their investigation and seek out the perspectives of those who could validate the good that Mortenson had done, perhaps the story they broadcasted would have been less damaging.

It is when we are so caught up in our own perspective of how things should be that we can forget the richness that another perspective can offer us. I know for me being steadfast in my own perspectives can feel powerful and secure. I can feel certain that I know the right answer — that I know the best way forward. But in truth, this rigid attachment is exactly what stifles my curiosity and growth.

While many of us fear that being open and flexible might be judged as being wishy-washy or inefficient (by our co-workers, our partners, our children), we overlook the benefit of tapping into the perspectives of those around us. Holding on too tightly to a political perspective, a religious belief or even the direction of a project at work (or the family vacation), can create blinders that limit our ability to see the bigger picture.

The fact is that each of us holds our own version of the truth. Somewhere in the gray area — between all the black and white of our own perspectives and the perspectives of others, is a place where greater understanding and compassion lay.

Pico Iyer, in his TED Talk “The Beauty of What We’ll Never Know,” shares an observation he made while traveling with the Dalai Lama. When asked to give his perspective on the future of Tibet or the best way to raise a child, the Dalai Lama always calmly responded, “I don’t know.” A wise man who knows that our perspective is only part of the story, and honouring this ‘not knowing’ is an opportunity for further connection, learning, and growth.


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