Dear readers, perhaps you’ve noticed that I’ve been quiet for awhile. With springtime’s emphasis on rebirth, I like to think I’ve been hatching an egg, conceptually speaking. A new thought (new to me, I mean) has been taking possession of my mind and I’ve been readying myself to express it.
I am beginning to think there’s something to the spiritual teaching that our mental energies feed whatever they touch. If I spend hours a day gnawing on the gristle of my kvetch, my complaints will obligingly multiply to fill all my available time. If my politics are purely oppositional–if I focus almost exclusively on protesting the misdeeds of the powers-that-be–it appears that the miscreants thrive on the attention. It seems we attract to ourselves those energies that claim our attention, creating a symbiotic relationship with our obsessions.
Is this sounding a little Star Trekesque? Like one of those episodes where a huge, slimy monster seizes control of the Starship Enterprise, then turns out to be an artifact of the crew members’ imaginings? One where, in the last five minutes of the episode, Mr. Spock discovers that all they have to do to vanquish the threat is to think kindly thoughts? If I’m making you nervous, try to put your reservations to the side, bearing with me a few moments longer. If you want to dismiss this when you’re done reading, so be it.
Consider the macro. As has been pointed out before, we’ve declared war on poverty many times without making a dent (rather the opposite). Decades of war on drugs have put huge numbers in prison, radically altering community life and economic reality without reducing harm. And as for the war on terrorism, how’s that going? A glance at the headlines tells us we create two new terrorists for every one arrested.
Consider the micro. When I nurse my complaints about other people, fingering the scabs of perceived slights until I make them bleed again, I set the stage for new injuries. I give others tremendous power over me, conditioning my happiness on their reactions. I meet them expecting the worst, and my expectations are often fulfilled.
This question seems important to me right now, as dissent snowballs. Saying no to what we oppose is essential, because any positive action is grounded in that discrimination: I want to go this way, not that way. But if what I have written is right, it is precisely now that the choice matters most. If the gathering democratic energy gets stuck on opposition without proposition–well, what a waste!
Think about it. Whenever the focal point of energy rests solely on what we oppose or resist, whatever specific battles are won, the problem seems to feed on our attention, growing in strength. I’ve been thinking back on more than four decades of my own largely oppositional activism and social criticism. It’s true that campaigns focused on stopping highly specific misdeeds sometimes succeeded: ending Jim Crow laws, ending the military draft. Those were important victories. But even as they were won, the underlying problems–racism and rogue wars–persisted, even worsened.
As dissatisfaction with President Bush grows and information on his crimes and errors proliferates, people are beginning to gear up for the next presidential election. Several books proposing Democratic Party strategy have appeared. I keep reading the same things in reviews: that the most passionate parts are their critiques of the Republicans (unsurprising, since the Republicans have given us so much to passionately criticize), and almost all their advice is technical: how to pick winning issues from a preset menu, how to mobilize voters. How to play the game.
But it seems to me the more we do it that way–the more we focus on the folks in power, complaining about their corruption while we try to work the pulleys and levers of the system that sustains them–the more reified and hopeless-feeling the whole thing gets, and the more people back away from politics altogether. Perhaps they feel that repeating their complaints only demoralizes them and feeds the perpetrators with attention. And perhaps they’re right.
I like to think of myself as a font of social imagination, but when I rifle through my mental card-file, most of the folders are jam-packed with critique. The propositional folders are yellowing with age: I really haven’t gone back to first principles and exercised my social imagination for decades. What if a genie popped out of a bottle and said, “Okay, Arlene, your turn. You’ve been generating critique for ages. Now what do you propose?” If I were to eliminate tired old statements about full funding for government programs I don’t really respect, I wouldn’t have much to say.
So I have set myself a challenge. I am going to upend my personal division of attention: instead of spending 75 percent of my energy detailing what’s wrong, when I see something that needs to be put right, I’m going to invest 75 percent of my energy envisioning solutions. You could say I’m an expert in certain areas of policy, especially as pertains to culture. But on most subjects, I’m just a concerned citizen determined to use her creativity to help expand freedom, honesty and compassion. If my hypothesis is correct, the flow of potential solutions should increase as I get better at focusing on what is truly desirable. Wish me luck!