From this bubble we inhabit, I’ve watched a world of faraway protests unfold of late — upsurges of outrage, mobbing the streets and Twitter with catchy hashtags, Hunger Games-esque police forces responding.
As one protest falls, another rises up in its place.
Recently, Fast Company magazine senior editor Jason Feifer vented about our citizen and consumer outrage at each passing scandal, suggesting that the various powers-that-be don’t care so much about the allegations that have provoked us as they do about the outrage itself. Once the outrage has passed, they’ll return to business as usual.
“The real test,” Feifer said, “isn’t whether we can get briefly outraged. It’s whether we can collectively sustain outrage. Unfaltering outrage. Outrage that doesn’t sleep. Outrage that is vigilant. Outrage that forces us to not buy, to not participate.”
The powers-that-be bet our outrage will fade quickly, counting on people to get distracted, move on, forget. “I hope they’re wrong,” said Feifer. “Because outrage is sometimes the best weapon we have, which in and of itself is an outrage. But let’s work with what we’ve got.”
To sustain anything — outrage, creativity, a campaign, sobriety, a relationship, community engagement — requires focus. And focus is a skill-set in short supply.
Working in marketing, PR, news media and community relations, the goal is always the same: to capture attention.
Attention is the commodity, the trophy, the win. But even when you catch it, it’s of dubious quality — the multi-tasker’s video view while scrolling through Facebook, messaging friends and bike riding down the street, is really not of the same value as the rapt attention of an undistracted viewer.
Psychologist Daniel Goleman explains in his book Focus that human attention draws on two different parts of the brain — the older, lower brain yields a kind of “bottom-up attention,” all impulse and raw instinct and high-speed unconscious responses — the type drawn to click-bait web headlines and friends’ Facebook feeds and addictive TV shows. The conscious brain is our “top-down” attention, the self-discipline to screen out distractions, stay on task and follow a train of thought.
Wellness Almanac contributor and yoga teacher, Laura Zgud, recently decided to give her “top-down” brain a chance. She and her family ditched the TV and reclaimed the living room for living instead of binge-watching Orange is the New Black.
“As addicting and entertaining as these shows are, they often left me feeling anxious,” Zgud writes this week on the Wellness Almanac blog. “I took on the stress of the characters. Talk about unhealthy feelings to experience!”
For Zgud, there were a lot of practical factors in the decision — a toddler’s pre-dawn wake-up calls, limited real estate in the living area, a desire to make healthy choices — but one outcome is that now they’ve created space to sustain focus on the things that are important to them — spontaneous dance-parties, one other, the occasional documentary to feed the top-down brain, rather than seducing and distracting the bottom-up brain.
“With the amount of devices we have on us and in our house, we figure one less screen can only benefit us. The only thing I’ll continue watching is documentaries, which we can always watch on the computer.”
As local naturalist Dawn Johnson discovered after her 50 Day Wellness Challenge, the secret to wellness might be as simple as realizing that we need to “say no, to make way for yes.”
Sometimes, it seems that only narrow-minded idealogues or brainwashed extremists can sustain outrage and the rest of us can only manage bewilderment. Maybe it’s time to pare away enough of the distractions that our attention becomes worth something again.