Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Needed: Focus

When Winifred Gallagher was diagnosed with cancer she chose not to think about it. Surely, she underwent treatment, but as she did so she chose to retrain her mind to ignore negative information and to focus on positive stimuli and experiences.

In her new book "Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life" she explains that she chose to look "toward whatever seemed meaningful, productive, or energizing, and away from the destructive and dispiriting."

Much of her book-- which I only know from reviews-- addresses the question of why we ignore small pleasures and nice moments in favor of calamities, dramatic confrontations, and horror stories?

While Gallagher correctly approaches the question through Darwin, I would add a couple of thoughts about cultural bias.

How many of us live in a culture that tells us that we should focus our attention on the horrors that surround us, the tragedies that befall humanity, and the raw destruction that plagues the planet.

This culture tells us that people who make a habit of thinking negative thoughts are in closer touch with the truth.

If we don't follow its lead, this culture pronounces us superficial and meaningless. We will lose credibility.

Mainly because horrors count as the truth and people who think negative thoughts are supposed to be in touch with reality.

Enjoying the little things in life becomes become the province of the ignorant. People have been conditioned not to talk for very long about the fun they had at a party. If they wanted this culture to respect them, they will immediately shift to the insults, the offenses against propriety, the awful behavior of one or more revelers.

And how many schools go out of their way to avoid the positive developments in human history, the better to focus a child's minds and attention on everything that has ever gone wrong?

How many of them teach that the awful things that happened outweigh the good?

Is that the definition of an educated person?

Obviously, these cultural influences reflect depressive thinking. We must assume that some of our more talented and culturally savvy depressives decided to deal with their anguish by disseminating it to everyone else.

They worked to create a culture that would train us in the habits of depressive thought.

Was it because misery lives company? Or because when more people are miserable, then misery feels normal? Or because they wanted to punish all those optimistic spirits they blamed for their depression?

Whatever the reason, it is not a good thing.

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