I am realizing that many of us, me included, have a tendency to readily notice and respond to the things in the world that are blatantly wrong, or problematic, and that this may consequently mean we simultaneously are not giving enough attention to the things that are right.
I first became aware of this tendency decades ago when I worked a couple summers as a lifeguard. When I found myself in the lifeguard chair, looking at a large, crowded pool with lots of noise and activity, I had a moment of doubt. I wondered how in the world am I going to see someone in trouble in this chaos? I asked an older lifeguard that question and he replied that I just needed to keep my eyes on the pool and if someone got into trouble, I’d see it. Sounds too simple, right? It isn’t. As it turns out our attention is drawn to the things that aren’t right. Whether it is inconsistencies, differences in movement, sometimes the obvious shout for “help”, or some other more esoteric phenomenon, it is a reliably real thing. I would always find my attention drawn to someone in trouble. Sometimes a few seconds before they were actually experiencing the distress. Of course it is also true that my mindset, my internal desire, was to see such occurrences. That may be a part of the function at work. I began calling this tendency to have our attention drawn to what is wrong “the lifeguard principle”.
While paying attention and looking for trouble was an explicit part of that job, I think it is something we all do to a greater or lesser extent. It definitely is a survival trait in times of threat. Maybe it’s a carry over from the days when we were walking through forests or jungles and we had to be aware of our surroundings to avoid being eaten. It definitely is a behavior that is necessary in times of warfare, one person, gang, tribe, nation, attacking another. I believe it is universal among humankind. For those interested in looking into such things, there is some correlate in the functioning of our “exciting” and “calming” neurotransmitters. Our bodies have evolved in a way that we deplete our “calming” neurotransmitters well before we are in danger of running out of “exciters”. I suppose that would help keep us from just lying down and being eaten when being chased by a tiger. But now, in the year 2020, for many if not most of us, the dynamics we face in our day to day lives are not quite the same as they have been through much our existence.
It’s not that there still aren’t some acute dangers in the world; in some places much more than others. However, the dangers most of us face in developed nations are more of a chronic nature. We don’t get pounced on and quickly killed and eaten by a tiger, we get killed more gradually by being slowly consumed by worries, fears, anxieties, and insecurities. Just as the nature of the threats has changed over time, our reactions to the threats we’re facing needs to change also. A sudden, pervasive startle, fight or flight reaction to all the, sometimes subtle, threats an average person may face during their day would certainly result in a person becoming overly stressed, burned out, and significantly more at risk for a plethora of diseases. Further, not only would such a reaction pattern do that, having such acute reactions to daily stressors has and is doing that to people today, every day.
Sometimes we need to intervene in what direction our “autopilot” chooses and become more reasoned with our reactions to life’s events. Having an innate sensitivity to things that are “wrong” in our environment can be part of an important survival system. Our “lifeguard principle” exists for just that purpose, to help guard our lives. This brings to my mind a book by Gavin De Becker: “The Gift of Fear”. It addresses the important role fear can and does play in our lives. However, with both the “lifeguard principle” and “The Gift of Fear”, whether or not these innate aspects of our being serve us or sabotage us depends entirely on how we react to the input we receive from them.
In our complex, more populated, human culture primitive responses to what are often sophisticated situations become less and less viable. As a culture, we need to get way more invested in learning more about what it is to be human and what we inherently, and universally, require to establish and maintain healthy, vital, lives. When we learn to respond to human, social, problems in a manner seeking to solve those problems on the basis of seeing needs met and lives stabilized, we are going to find ourselves in a thriving, vibrant world such as we have only had the partial passing enjoyment of, you could say glimpses of, during a few periods of time in the past 150 years.
Within the current available knowledge from the fields of psychology, sociology, physiology, and spirituality, we have all we need to have more than a good start. It only requires our will and determination to do so.