How Frame of Reference Impacts Us More than We Think

Recently I started listing to the Invisibilia podcast from NPR (fantastic, by the way), and their most recent episode was about how your frame of reference can greatly impact your experience.

They interviewed a woman with Asperger’s who participated in an experiment that allowed her to briefly see the world through the eyes of someone without it, and she talked about how that changed her whole outlook on life.  Even though afterward she went home with exactly the same limitations, she had gotten a different frame of reference for life, and that made a huge impact on her.

This story was moving and fascinating, to be sure, but it didn’t resonate the way the second interview did.

The second person they spoke to was Hasan Minhaj, a comedian best known for his role as a correspondent on The Daily Show, who was raised by a father who came from India when it was in the middle of very rough times.  Hasan experienced the world through two different frames of reference–his own, and his father’s.


Hassan Minhaj  |  How Frame of Reference Impacts us More than we Think  |  Jill of all Trades
Picture is from Hasan Minhaj’s website!


He spoke of how as a child, when he experienced difficulties (and they were what most Americans would consider legitimate troubles; he was bullied and called names and was the victim of some pretty gross racism, especially after 9/11), his father couldn’t seem to understand how he could complain.  In comparison to what his father had gone through and even to what his extended family back in India was currently going through, his troubles were nothing.

So what this gave Hasan was a conflicting perspective.  On one hand, he was fully aware there was worse out there, so should he be more accepting of the things he was going through?  On the other hand, as they pointed out, what if Martin Luther King Jr. had just accepted his troubles because others had it worse?

In other words: what is the balance between “having perspective” or a wider frame of reference, and being just upset enough by the smaller injustices to make necessary change?

It took me some time to figure out why this resonated with me.  I think a big part of that is because it was complex…there is more than one way I experience something akin to what Hasan does (not that I’m comparing our levels of difficulty).


Frame of Reference 1: Heritage

For one, my father is from Syria.  When my dada brought him and my nana and aunts and uncles to the U.S. in the 70s, they were escaping a pretty nasty situation.  My family is Armenian, and as Christians they were mistreated badly in that area of the world.  My father still has scars on his head from where other children threw rocks at him.

And this is nothing even still compared to the Armenian genocide, a burden we all bear not only because it brings us sadness and still affects us all greatly–consider the diaspora alone–but also for the same reasons Hasan’s heritage can be a burden for him at times.  It’s akin to survivor’s guilt.  In our frame of reference, we consider ourselves lucky.  Shouldn’t we then take everything that comes our way in stride, never forgetting to be grateful?

I am reminded of a quote from my all-time favorite novel, Fugitive Pieces, when a man is talking about his father who survived the Holocaust, and dealt with a bizarre relationship with food as a result:


“Knowing what he knew, should he stuff himself, or starve?”


Frame of Reference 2: Gender

This one took me an extra bit of time to put my finger on.  I have experienced numerous counts of violence, harassment and discrimination due to my gender.  I’m an outspoken feminist.  And I truly believe that my gender is oppressed in this country.

However I have trouble sometimes with the fact that most of what I know, understand and talk about is “western feminism.” In a way, my problems are largely first world problems.  How can I complain about body standards when women in other countries experience genital mutilation?  How can I complain about making 73 cents on the man’s dollar when some women aren’t even allowed to work?  How can I complain about experiencing sexual assault or harassment when some women have been brutally raped?

I didn’t report my sexual assault to the authorities.  I felt severe guilt (a common, if absurd, reaction) and didn’t feel my pain was worth the trouble filing charges would cause everyone else.  This is perhaps the most obvious instance of how my frame of reference–and ensuing sense of survivor’s guilt–has affected me.


So my question is: to what extent does my frame of reference give me a good, open perspective, and to what extent does it harm me?


How does your frame of reference impact you?  Do you have a story about how a frame of reference changed for you?  Tell me below!


How Frame of Reference Impacts us More than we Think | Jill of all Trades