Saturday, February 7, 2009

A question of focus

I was thinking about a writer who likes the theories of a particular author, except that there is one part of the theory that bothers her.

I was thinking, in a parallel way, about how we handle anger.

Riding my bike today, I witnessed a man losing his temper at some mechanical failure of his bike.

On the one hand, I believe that emotions are real and that we do not make our lives better for trying to bottle them up. When we are angry, it is not inappropriate to feel the anger--the anger is an action signal--a sign that we want to change things and that we should take action to make change.

But as each moment passes, where do we focus our attention? The event that bothers us has occurred; the author has written the part of the theory that bothers us. Where do we focus our attention? On that which has gone wrong (in the past)? Or on that which is yet to come and that which we can still shape?

I was walking with my friend at the civic center park in Berkeley and a bunch of kids on skateboards passed, weaving between us and some mothers with their babies in strollers. My friend yelled at the kids to be careful. We went and sat down, and he was still fuming.

I understand the reality of emotions as not just passing instantly. They are physiological and the physioloigcal state of anger or fear doesn't just pass quickly. But that being said, he had a choice: to focus on that which had angered him or on something else.

I'm not saying that I know what the right answer to that choice was. I'm not sure that I believe that there is a right choice. But it is a choice. I think it's a choice that depends on what we think is important.

At any moment we are faced with many different choices of what to focus on--we can focus on what has happened to us in the past, any of many things; we can focus on what is happening to us in the moment, again, any of many things; and we can focus on the future, which yet again presents many choices of what to focus on.

Is there some rule that says that we must focus on the injustice that is most present in our consciousness? Is there a rule that we must focus on the aspect of the theory that bothers us? Is there a rule that says that we must focus on the problem?

I don't think so. We can look past the injustice to what we will do to prevent such injustice in the future, or to what we will do, if we will not act to prevent it. We can look to getting revenge or retribution, rather than just focusing on what happened before. We can focus on getting back to where we were before the problem.

We can look at the theory and abstract the parts that we like without having to accept the parts that we don't Thomas Jefferson's claim that all men are created equal is a claim that has an abstract meaning that each person can respect (at least if we interpret it to refer to all humans). The fact that Thomas Jefferson owned slaves, and might not have even considered them people, is a difficult, unpleasant fact. But it does not mean that the ideal that he recommends is any less beautiful.

If a problem exists, must we deal with that problem? Or can we strive to make proress in other ways? Sometimes, of course, there is a problem that requires immediate attention, but what about problems that do not? Can we not choose to focus our attention elsewhere?

Our lives are complex and filled with many competing demands. We do not want to shirk responsibility, but are there not times when we can choose to look at something other than the negative things that are presenting themselves?

Progress can come in many forms; progress provides new resources and new opportunities. But if we focus on what has gone wrong already, on that which we cannot fix, on the fact that some imperfection exists and we need perfection, then we will be stuck.

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