The beginning of a new year often precipitates more philosophical and poetic wonderings and wanderings for me. One thing I have been reflecting on a lot is about how 2016 is a “Thank God that’s over!” kind of year. There was a lot of bad news and most of us felt the shock of it washing over us again and again.
Uncertainty & Instability
I particularly noticed the ever-present uncertainty many people experienced in 2016, whether because of political posturing, wars and rumours of wars, racism and ageism, the loss of cultural icons and artists, or the effects of widespread economic instability. Unfortunately, there was ample news of death, doom, and destruction.
Isolation & Cynicism
Added to above problems were the isolation that social media and screens kindled (surprising) and the mushrooming messes neo-liberalism continued to propagate (not surprising). As well, there was intense frustration and cynicism about age-old structures, problems, and ideas that plagued and exhausted our communities—whether local or global.
Why We Notice Bad News
According to neuroscience, it is more common for us to notice the unusual, unpleasant, or worrying events around us. It’s called the negativity bias and it’s an evolutionary function to keep us alive. Problems and fears (real or perceived) strengthen the threat system in our brains and bodies (i.e., they supercharge the fight, flight, or freeze response).
Worry and fear activates the body’s threat system and preoccupation in either of these states can further increase our awareness of all that is troubling and wrong with the world. However, if our brains stay in threat mode for too long, there is an increase in the possibility of becoming depressed or anxious (or chronically cynical and angry). All those stress hormones floating around in our system are not good news over the long haul.
Stability & Security
Conversely, our brains typically pay much less attention to all that is going right. But, our brains will deactivate the threat response when we feel safe and stabile (psychologically and physically). If things are going well with us, the limbic system resets and the brain is able to focus again on other functions, such as creative thinking, analysis, and reasoning. We are also able to experience feel-good emotions, peacefulness, belonging and contentment being some of these.
What about the concept of a “no slacktivism” rule of life this year? Not just in our external domains but also for our brains. What if we were to actively combat that which seeks to destroy and divide our communities and families but also that which seeks to destroy and divide our happiness and hope? Not wearing rose-coloured glasses but also not wearing grey-coloured glasses either.
The Problem of Good
A question: what holds your attention and what do you think about on a regular basis? Turns out, that’s pretty important information if you want to maintain some of your optimism and hope.
Richard Rohr writes: ‘We have spent centuries of philosophy trying to solve “the problem of evil”…but how do we account for so much gratuitous and sheer goodness in this world?’
How do we create, or enjoy more hope, health, and goodness?
How do we notice that which will delight, beautify, and love deeply?
How do we believe again that there are people and things worth celebrating?
Pare Down or Bulk Up?
To begin this season of my life, I am planning to notice more of what is working well, what is possible, and what will bring people together. I’m going to notice who or what influences me most and what gets the majority of my attention in the average day. Maybe a deeper exploration of my true self is required or maybe ditching the constant navel-gazing would serve me better. As well, I’m thinking about the possibility of paring down or bulking up a habit, rhythm or ritual of life.
Ditching the Dark Side
One thing I feel certain about: I don’t imagine that looking for goodness, hope, peace, beauty, justice, truth will be an easy process, especially because those aren’t the themes relentlessly bloating my social media feeds or the news. It’s probably not going to be a natural process either—especially as I remember again how our brains are wired. But I’m going to try to adopt a beginner’s mind in all this and lay my weariness and wariness down in favour of a more balanced vista.
Four Point Plan
This is the basic pattern I will try to follow in 2017:
- Disengage from the unyielding barrage of ideas that seeks to grab attention but offers neither an informed opinion nor a viable solution.
- Focus more on whatever supports healing and hope in the world around me.
- Engage in calming rituals (e.g., Tai Chi, walking meditation, contemplation, yoga) to encourage different ways of thinking, noticing, and believing.
- Focus on what is going well while moving toward changing what isn’t going well.
Maybe you’d like to join me in this? Feel free to contact me with your ideas or comments.