What we focus on expands
I was flipping through my phone yesterday morning when a news story caught my eye. I know you saw it too. The random backfiring of a motorcycle in New York City caused a panic and sent hundreds of people running for cover, fearing they were being fired upon. Last weekend’s mass shootings, added to the unacceptably long list of mass shootings already logged, have us all on edge. We’ve become like soldiers suffering from PTSD, and most of us are suffering from it without having experienced a real-time mass shooting situation. We’re suffering from empathetic PTSD, expecting we are the next victim. We’re on high alert constantly. Everything we see and everything we hear is cause for panic.
We feel unsafe. Understandably so. There have been shootings at schools, churches, malls, restaurants, movie theaters, grocery stores, and concerts. There is not a location in our nation where you can consider yourself safe from gun violence. Through constant connection to news via our devices and social media, we have been conditioned to anticipate catastrophe.
Like most, I’ve struggled to keep my head on straight despite the barrage of negative news. I’ve worked hard to teach our sons by example that a life lived through fear is no life at all. Our oldest hasn’t been comfortable in a movie theater since the July 2008 shooting in Aurora, Colorado, but we still take him to movies. We have to. Life is filled with risk. How will he learn to live with his discomfort if we give it a foothold? Where do we end up when we allow the possibility of gun violence to stop us from taking full advantage of the freedom our country allows?
I found this chart to help my sons put things in perspective. The possibility of something bad happening is omnipresent. The probability, however, is not what we think it is.
Yes. You could become the victim of gun violence, but that potential is far less than the potential of falling victim to an accident or a prevalent disease. So, do you hole up in your home, hoping to stay “safe” (whatever that means) or do you live your life? I’m not implying these statistics aren’t alarming. They are. We just need to shift our focus away from catastrophe and onto reality. Heart disease is the most likely scenario for most Americans, but it probably doesn’t stop us from eating foods we shouldn’t or sitting on the couch when we could be getting some exercise. We weigh the overall odds and make a choice. We decide the pleasure of eating the cheese fries is worth the risk of artery damage. We tell ourselves, you gotta live, right? And we are right.
Shit happens. No amount of wishing shit didn’t happen is going to change the fact that it does. Can we do something about gun violence in the United States? I’d like to think so, but while we struggle to climb this Everest-level problem we can make small changes that will positively impact our lives now. We need to stop smothering ourselves in every detail of every depressing news story and turn our minds to what matters, what we can control, and what positivity we can foster. Delete the news apps (or at least silence the constant notification barrage) and withdraw intentionally from the things that make us anxious. It won’t change the reality, but the distance we create might make us sleep a little easier. It’s not about burying our heads in the sand. It’s about choosing to place our energy on positivity in the present rather than borrowing trouble from a future we cannot control.
Finding Nemo was released in 2003, when we had a 2 year old and a newborn. It was the first Pixar DVD we purchased for our sons. I couldn’t tell you precisely how many times I’ve seen it, but it’s a lot. As our sons have grown and started spreading their wings, I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on that movie, the constant soundtrack to my sons’ young lives, thinking of poor, anxiety-ridden Marlin who in his fervor to avoid losing his son causes that exact thing. It’s easy to let negative past experiences ruin current positive ones.
I understand why the folks in Times Square started running when they heard the backfire. I probably would have joined them. It was a knee-jerk reaction fomented by 24/7 coverage of our mass shooting nightmares. We’re conditioned to expect the worst. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could consciously choose to return to a time when a motorcycle backfire might cause us to startle, maybe quicken our pulse rate a bit because of the unexpected loud noise, but that is where it would end? Perhaps as a collective we could decide to be less like fearful, negative Marlin and more like glass-is-half-full Dory by engaging in some short-term memory loss. It’s time we stop terrorizing ourselves by focusing on worst case scenarios. If we’re going to focus on something, let’s focus on good and watch it expand.