My childhood was not one that most would seek to endure and my adult life has been more than amply endowed with losses that have wounded me deeply. When things are going badly it would be all too easy to focus on the precariousness of my life and on the many times when kindness and care has been repaid with hostility and betrayal.
Yet I’ve also been fortunate enough to have received totally unimagined gifts of love and kindness. I’ve learned that one must love without expectation or hope of return, simply because it’s a more positive position than one of emotional parsimony. Sometimes, magically, love is returned. But even when it is not reciprocated, being able to love freely makes the world a little lighter and easier to bear.
My sixty years on this fragile little planet that we so foolishly take for granted has shown me that each moment is precious and should whenever possible be savored. That’s why I don’t own a television, have zero interest in the transient ephemera of pop culture, and prefer to be out-of-doors than to sit slumped on a sofa. I’ve learned that for those of us fortunate enough to have (at least for the moment) a roof over our heads and sufficient food to eat, life is often a question of focus.
Those irritating team mates at work: do we really have to care so much about them? That unfortunate incident with the manager: is it really something we want to re-hash during our private hours? Will it really help to worry about things we can’t change?
Or would it be better for our physical and emotional health to deposit fruitless frustrations into the great psychological trash bin and focus instead on random moments of pleasure?
Of course, this is sometimes quite impossible. If we’re sick, injured, or those we care deeply for are suffering, it’s natural for us to find it very difficult to cut away and look for moments of grace. If we’re homeless and hungry, life provides few pleasing distractions. But for those of us not facing such existential challenges we do have a choice of where to focus our attention. Like so many aspects of our lives, it’s a habit we can choose to acquire with practice.
The other day I was feeling stressed and depressed for a variety of reasons. I had several tasks still to do but the afternoon was warm and bright. I’d been working since the early hours of the morning and calculated that I still had several hours remaining; however I could work after dark if I chose. I shut off my laptop and took a blanket down to the lake where I lay in the sun for a while, feeling its warm rays relaxing me. After some time I shielded my eyes to check the position of the sun and as I did so I saw hundreds of tiny dancing lights directly above me.
As I focused I saw they were the diaphanous wings of tiny insects that had chosen me as their “anchor point” for the mass mating dance such creatures use to display fitness. By remaining as closely as possible in one fixed point above an object of contrast while the wind puffs and tiny vortices spiral, the males signal to the females the quality of their genes. Knowing the reason for these minuscule insects flitting about above me made the experience richer, adding to the visual delight of hundreds of tiny pseudo-stars flitting and blinking just above my body.
I was filled with a sudden joy, pleased that my presence on the grass was enabling these short-lived little creatures to fulfill the urgings of their genes.
Even on days when I feel drained of energy I know that as I get closer to the gym I’ll be soothed by the lush foliage that covers the last kilometer of my walk. This never fails to fill me with a sense of nostalgia and comfort, even though now there are more leaves on the ground and fewer on the branches with each passing day. I could focus on how tired I feel but it’s more useful to focus on the sensory treat the trees and bushes provide, and this uplifts me.
For me, focus is an aspect of self-care. Just as I don’t harm my body with junk food, I don’t harm my mind with junk thoughts. Our modern world is full of media-transmitted sensation, fear, and incomprehension so I mostly ignore it. It is true that we’re at a new stage in our brief existence as a species: a time when our habitual ignorance and stupidity is being amplified a thousand-fold by the marvels of modern technology. I doubt we’ll survive more than another century or two, but I can’t do anything about that. There are 7.4 billion people on the planet today and only one of me. So I choose to focus on what I can impact, which is the lives of those who are dear to me and my own mental hygiene.
Life is precious. Tous les matins du monde sont sans retour. We should savor as many fleeting moments as we can while we have the brief luxury of doing so.
It’s a matter of focus.