I know a woman in her forties who is a typical single mom. Katrina has two school-age girls, and she works full time, scrambling to juggle all her responsibilities. Last year, Katrina earned just more than $35,000. She’ll pay 25 percent of that in taxes.
Mitt Romney didn’t work last year. I’m not sure what he did do with his time, but The Washington Post is reporting that his income was from profits, dividends, and investment interest. He didn’t work, but he made almost $21 million. He’ll pay about 15.4 percent in taxes.
Stories like this make it easy to be cynical. And angry. And frustrated.
Yet, all around me, in my real life, I see people doing good things for each other. The larger system may be broken, but our ways of interacting with each other are often really excellent. Our lives can still work if we focus on helping each other and creating communities where cynical acts of injustice are rare. In my life, I have that kind of community around me. It is the work of good people, focusing in the right places, that makes this possible.
For me to maintain my good humor and my strong belief in the kindness and good works of my fellow human beings, I spend little time considering the nastiness that some portion is always perpetrating.
As a long time journalist, I understand how important it is to know what’s going on in the world. We all must participate in our larger community; it’s impossible to create a civil society without an informed public. I believe in paying attention…to some degree.
But more than that, I believe in creating a healthy, real world where people care about each other, where we can become effective in making changes by living good lives. There is too much to pay attention to. So many of us fall for sheer distraction rather than paying attention to what matters most.
After years as a news hound, I now skip huge portions of the news and entertainment world. For example, if I never read another story about a brutal killing of a child, my life will be better for it. I really don’t need to see The Hangover or play Angry Birds. I may need to know something about Justin Bieber, but only because I have a teenage girl. More than a couple profiles and I have definitely reached my JB quota.
Reading and watching too much of this kind of stuff, I start to feel my cynical edge creeping ever closer to my happy reality, my surety that life is good, people are kind, and the world is a beautiful place. These things are real to me. I don’t need plunge myself into the waters of humanity’s baseness, conflict, and strife. I need to give my attention to the things that work.
I know this is sacrilegious thinking to some of my news-gathering colleagues. I can hear any number of my friends saying that the problem isn’t that people are paying attention too closely, but that they aren’t paying attention enough.
On this point we agree. But what’s worth paying attention to may be where we differ.
Back to the example of Romney above, I need to know enough about the presidential candidates to make an informed decision so I can vote. I can seek out trustworthy sources and do my homework. What I don’t need to know is every detail of the race, every bit of scandal that every news organization will drag out, every nuance of a potential first lady’s hairstyle.
I still get sucked in. A few days ago, I found myself reading a New Yorker piece about Callista Gingrich. Her hair and her jewelry were wrapped into a story about Newt’s loyalty to her. Do I really care about this? Does it really matter to me? Does it help me be a better person? Decidedly no. Can I have my twenty minutes back please?
Huffington Post, the most popular blog on the internet, recently announced a “Good News” section. I get the idea; I know lots of people ask for news organizations to tell us happy stories. But I’m not talking about reading happy stories about people doing good things instead of reading cynical stories about people doing lousy things. I’m talking about not following the news. I’m talking about skipping the game. I’m talking about not knowing who the guy on the cover of Vanity Fair is. I’m talking about following our own lives. I’m talking about taking a walk with loved ones. I’m talking about being as conversant about my real people as some people are about movie or music stars. I’m talking about getting a real life.
In my experience there isn’t enough time in a day to do both. There are all kinds of ways that I can spend my time that do matter to me and to my immediate world. There’s not even enough time to do those: to pay attention to small people, to lend a helping hand, to find a new way to see an old situation, to create a new connection, to take care of business, to be with my real friends and family.
How easy it is to get lost in a world where we’re deeply involved in the wrong things: life-sucking, energy-draining, cynicism-building yuck. There’s plenty of life to choose from. Let’s choose carefully.