Paying Attention Bill McDonald’s
January 2013 - Volume 13, No. 1
I’ve long noticed that when we are anxious, angry or afraid, our peripheral vision narrows, even to almost disappearing. This is true both psychologically as well as physiologically. All we can ‘see’ is what’s straight ahead, which means we miss many of the other options and opportunities available to us. That’s why, whenever we’re in conflict, it’s good to find a way to relax, back off, take a break, look at the situation from a different perspective.
A normal process of human development includes the increasing ability to consider more than just one’s own needs. At first it’s just me, “mine”; then emerge the thoughts, feelings, and needs of others (“yours and mine,” “ours”). As we continue to develop, “others” becomes a broader and broader spectrum, usually beginning with family, neighborhood, town, state, until it may become a truly “global consciousness.”
In times of crisis, we regress. With the Sandy Hook School disaster, the first natural response of many was to simply hug their own children. “At least mine are safe.” After that, we attach ourselves to our own favorite blame issues - especially the issues here of gun control (a favorite ‘blame’ issue of my own), mental health availability, and violence in movies and video games. Then we can certainly blame the media for their insistence on a quick story rather than carefully vetted information.
Yes, in times of stress, we humans back down the developmental ladder, regressing more and more to the narrow issues of our primitive self. (This can be easily mapped by studies of the various parts of the human brain.) As the perspective narrows, so do our available choices. I recall my own horror, at the time of9/11, watching my own country regress to reactive measures that have now cost us all trillions of dollars, sullied our international reputation, and cost more lives than any calculation of the original event. Truly somebody else won, we surely didn’t.
It’s reported that most lottery winners end up broke and/or in bankruptcy. Won money, or ‘found’ money has no value connected with our work. It’s ‘extra.’ So, what usually happens, we “give away” about 10% of it to others, a guilt offering for our good fortune; then the rest is our own to play with. All the things I’ve wanted, and could not have, now I can have. Money and possessions seem to have this strange power over us, if we’re not careful. I find these powers are among the most destructive forces in marriages.
Organizations behave the same way. One way to destroy a benevolent organization is to bequeath to it an unrestricted money gift that at least matches its annual budget. I’ve seen this in churches, and other non-profit organizations. There’s this wide-open new space called “what shall we do with the money?” It’s common knowledge that whoever gets in the first suggestion, has a better chance of prevailing. Quickly the energy shifts from general global consciousness to “my favorite project versus your favorite project.” Often it’s only after all the money is gone that the original heart of the organization can return.
(Note: On the other hand, for-profit organizations have an advantage, in that the use and distribution of money (profit) is, at least implicitly, built into the original business plan.)
Most will recognize my title for this piece as coming from JRR Tolkien’s character, Gollum. Having long taken for himself the power of the Ring, he has regressed to a complete selfishness, which adores the Ring (“mine,” “my precious”) and splits him off from everything else, even splitting himself.
Yes, this developmental regression to singular ownership, splits things. It splits organizations. It breaks apart partnerships, marriages. It destroys economic systems. We hear a lot about the “Wall Street 1%” - who themselves have no understanding of their own increasing wealth as destructive to the welfare of the larger population.
A friend noted to me that a couple centuries ago, at the founding of our own nation, a certain Scottish philosopher observed that capitalism was an excellent economic system, except he predicted it would take about two hundred years for the greedy to develop the ability to undermine it for their own singular gain. (He could not recall the name of that philosopher. So if any reader has that information, please let me know.Thanks.)
So, as in most cases of human maturity, we need to be ever watchful. Never let anger or retribution rule the day. Distrust any language, internal or external, that insists on my own singular ownership of anything. Whenever you feel or hear yourself getting defensive, stop! - nothing of value will happen after that.
So often, that which becomes so “precious” is that which will steal our own soul, and is destructive of others. What’s most frightening is that we become oblivious of either.
Having just seen Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit,” I begin to appreciate anew how the wisdom of Gandalf knew to include in “the unexpected journey” a small man, a Hobbit, who had no pretenses to power, and nothing to prove, as the one who would singularly prevent the destruction of the “fellowship” and its purpose from within.