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If You Want to Make a Difference, Be Purposeful in Where You Put Your Attention

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August 9, 2020

We don’t have to be famous, wealthy, or brilliant to make a difference. If enough of us regular people hang together, we can change the world.

But before we can do that, we need to make conscious decisions about where we’re going to put our attention, and in what we’ll invest our energy and time.

Because if we don’t consciously choose where we put our attention, there are a bazillion outlets ready to kidnap our minds for as long as we let them.

For example, I joined Nextdoor, an online neighborhood hub created to help people connect and exchange helpful information, goods, and services. I thought, great idea!

It took two days to see it devolve from a site giving away free stuff and trying to locate the owners of a lost dog, into sniping, know-it-all coronavirus “I’m right/you’re wrong” pissing matches. It got mean.

I ended up blocking that particular thread, but not before I fell down a rabbit-hole of ranting in my head about a world gone mad. But I decided to hang in there because there’s also some good stuff–people helping people–sharing referrals and positive interactions. Sometimes it begins to go off the rails, and I either block that thread or notice that someone steps up to ask everyone to take a chill pill. Most people seem to catch themselves and regroup.

That experience with Nextdoor, however seemingly inconsequential, made me think more seriously about the question, “How do I decide where to focus my attention?”

Does Fear Make Us Weird?

We humans are capable of almost unimaginable feats of generosity.

But most of us are scared right now. And when we’re frightened, we often behave in unattractive, or wholly off-the-wall ways. When we’re afraid, our brains tend to misfire, and our thinking gets distorted. Sometimes, we will do just about anything to feel something other than what we’re feeling–scared and powerless.

Some of us turn into loudmouthed, know-it-all bullies. Or we respond with resistance and put our fingers in our ears and hum lalalalalala. Or we present as a Pollyanna who talks about how sad it all is, yet can’t see the opportunity in front of them to play a role that goes beyond talking about how sad it is.

I’ve done it myself. Someone says something I disagree with, and I forget my more significant purpose and get smaller and smaller as I try to prove my point. No longer am I trying to explore and expand my knowledge, or even help. I shift to autopilot and put a laser focus on proving myself right.

Or I distract myself with a television program or an app on my phone, instead of putting my fingers in my ears and humming—but it may as well be the same thing.

I’ve also been the Pollyanna, lamenting how sad everything is, but doing nothing about it.

We Need to Know Our Bottom-Lines

Before we can answer the question of where to put our attention, we need to start by figuring out what matters to us. What are our bottom lines? Our deal-breakers? Our core values? What are the things we’ll fall on the sword for vs. what is not our business?

Figuring out your bottom lines matters, because I guarantee that if you’re not clear, you’ll be badgered and bullied by everyone who has a cause. There are more worthwhile causes out there than there are people who espouse them.

But we need to remember that because we have a cause, that doesn’t mean everyone else on the planet will support it. If my cause is to save the whales, that’s where I need to put my attention. If I expect everyone else to jump on my bandwagon with the same energy I’m expending, then who will focus on climate change, or do the research we need to develop a vaccine for Covid-19.

We have a great deal of shaming going on between people with different ideas about what matters. Personally, I don’t think shaming works. It can ruin innocent lives, make people even more concretized in their position, or at its worst, shaming can make genuinely horrible behavior go underground and become even more insidious.

I absolutely think we need to call people out when they behave inappropriately. But there’s a line where it can turn into self-righteous shaming and that’s where, in my opinion, we have the potential to lose ourselves.

What matters to me is practicing what I preach. Making sure people can trust what comes out of my mouth. Taking responsibility for my behaviors, and working my butt off to make sure that nobody’s surprised by my values or my bottom lines because I’ve been honest about them.

Where I put my attention has become pretty uncomplicated. I strive to engage in, read about, and listen to things that help me be a better person, or show me how to help somebody out, or improve a situation.

Rage Can Be a Motivator and Agent for Change

Unfortunately, sometimes–more often than I’d like to admit–my attention still gets sidetracked. If I hear one more conspiracy theory or listen to one more pseudo-expert who believes science is simply an opinion, my head may implode. But today, when I find myself focusing on things that don’t move me to action but move me to feeling hopeless, enraged, and impotent, I know that I’m in the wrong place.

Don’t get me wrong. That’s just me. I recognize that for some, rage can be a positive propellant toward positive change. After all, rage is energy, just like any other feeling. If we harness it, we can move mountains. Or at least shake up the intellectual and social stagnation that sometimes grips us. We need to figure out our bottom lines, what truly matters to us, and then find ways to express them as values.

We each need to find our own path.

In the Covid-19 world, I believe we need people who care about and look out for other folks. We need people who manage themselves like grown-ups — who can delay immediate gratification for longer than a nanosecond.

Mark Manson, an American self-help author and blogger, nailed it when he said:

What the world needs right now is not a great savior; it needs billions of normal people doing small, ordinary, good things.”

I’m defining “normal” for myself as people who want the best for themselves and others, and are grounded in some semblance of reality. And I’m thinking of “ordinary” as doable and accessible. And finally, I’m defining “good” as something beneficial to both myself and others.

Not so hard, right? Wrong!

It’s not easy to distinguish what will be in humanity’s best interest, but this is where common sense, patience, compassion, and generosity of spirit come in.

We need to stop arguing about who’s right and who’s wrong before we have all the data and analysis to make an informed decision. It seems like forever that we’ve been living under the heavy blanket of Covid-19, but it’s only the beginning of our search for real and useful information about how to handle it.

Let’s rely on experts, science, and our concern for humanity’s wellbeing. They can give us reasonable guidelines for how we move forward as individuals, families, neighborhoods, larger communities, and countries.

Ideally, we will learn from this pandemic that has, for a while, crippled the world. I don’t know if we will ultimately grow from our experience. History says sometimes we do, and sometimes we don’t. But if we hold that up as a goal, we have nothing to lose.

Can We Change?

I do believe we can learn and make course adjustments. But only if all of us regular people hang together. We can’t control the outcomes, but if we make conscious decisions to benefit not only ourselves but the rest of the world, including the planet on which we depend, we’ll like ourselves better.

Our learnings will be personal and unique to each of our situations. But our attention can be on the same goals–to find communities where kindness rules and makes us want to be better.

I am learning to surround myself with information that expands me as a therapist or increases my understanding of healthy communication or simply brings me joy. But that doesn’t mean I’m ignoring the world, far from it. But I’m no longer exacerbating my emotions to feel like I’m doing something productive when I’m really taking myself down a rabbit hole that I’ve visited more times than I can count. 

These days have taught me to behave with greater impulse control and to delay gratification in ways I hadn’t experienced since I was a child. Back then, when one of my parents wagged a finger and told me, “No, you can’t have another candy bar,” my response was, “What? Why? I want it!”

Today, it’s, “No, Robyn, you can’t go to your favorite restaurant and sit inside for dinner just because you don’t feel like cooking. No, you can’t take a vacation right now because we still don’t know enough to be safe and keep others safe. And no, you can’t hug the people you love who don’t live with you, because you love them so much you won’t take a chance of innocently coughing and costing them their lives.”

Our most useful responses come when we remember our concern for others, instead of putting ourselves at the center of the universe and devolving to, “Who do you think you’re saying no to?”

There are lots of heroes. But today’s heroes aren’t superheroes — they’re the people doing small, ordinary, good things. They’re you and me.

Let’s Do This.

Let’s spread the stories of ordinary people acting as superheroes.

I hope you’ll share your family or community stories here. Tell us about the ordinary heroes that have crossed your path during the Covid-19 pandemic. The ones we’d never hear about if it wasn’t for you.

Or tell us about ways that you’ve been able to make a difference or offer a small act of kindness, or someone has offered that to you.

Maybe if we each extend one small act of kindness a day, or once a week, we can make this time mean something more than, “No, you can’t do that or have that.” We can make it a time of possibility despite everything in the way of that.

Please leave your comments and stories here as a reminder of the best of us.

Much love,