Mark Bertin M.D.

Child Development Central

Feed the Right Wolf

Why Negative Experiences Grab Our Attention, and What We Can Do About It

Posted Jul 13, 2015

A boy and his grandfather are hanging out. The boy says to his grandfather, How is it you never seem to get upset? Don't you ever feel angry?

His grandfather replies, I sometimes feel there are two wolves inside me, each of whom fights to tell me what to do. Whenever something angers me, one of the wolves is full of fire, and wants to attack and act nasty. The other is calmer, thinks clearly, and makes better choices. But they're both always there.  

And the boy asks, But if they are always fighting, how do you know which wolf is going to win?

The grandfather answers, The wolf who wins is the one I choose to feed.

Feeding Our Personal Wolves

Human nature hasn’t changed much since this Native American fable was created long ago.  We all have impulses and habits, some for the better and some for the worse - our inner wolves.  What has changed is that in this modern information era we are uniquely barraged with information and imagery, much of it disturbing and upsetting, that over and over again feeds a particularly angry wolf. 

Fifteen minutes in the barber chair today, and the television news shows me a shooting and tornados and an accident at a local nuclear plant.  I want to take action and make a statement when there is something to be done, and I hope others watching do the same - in many ways our world depends on it.  But it's an awful lot to take in all at once.  

After a perfectly normal day, with all its ups and downs, what fills your mind at night when you try to fall asleep?  Our brains are hardwired to notice potential hazards, a vital bias when in actual danger.  The flip side is that when we’re not under acute threat, upsetting things often grab our attention more than positive.  Our mind craves relaxation and happiness (or sleep), but lighter moments often pass without holding our attention. 

The news media seemingly thrives on this all too human tendency. It appears intent not only on informing but on riveting our attention in place, presumably to increase ratings or revenue. Graphic headlines and shocking stories fill our daily experience.  Yet this isn’t entirely the media’s fault, since we’re the ones choosing to watch that coverage in the first place.   Who hasn’t compulsively watched repetitive, grueling coverage of a tragedy? 

So what can be done?   For starters, we can decide to feed the healthier wolf in ourselves more often.  For me, in part that means reading the Sports and Arts sections first most mornings, because later I’ll listen to National Public Radio in the car, and at the office read news on the Internet.  There’s an expansive middle ground to explore between ‘well informed’ and ‘force feeding an angry wolf until it consumes everything around it.’

Another way of finding this less-charged space is through the practice of mindfulness.  When we attend to feeding a healthier wolf for at least a period of time daily, we loosen the grip of negativity for a few minutes.  Also to consider is the fact that doing altruistic things may improve our own state of mind.  Some people sustain a daily gratitude or compassion practice as a reminder to focus on positive experiences in life, and in the world around us.  For our ongoing inner wrestling matches, setting aside these moments builds an advantage for the clear-sighted wolves in our lives.

Attending to the Wolf Pack

The news nowadays can feel pretty overwhelming, dominated by violence, moral failure and looming environmental collapse.   But just as an individual might attend to wolves who represent their best nature, the same might apply for a society.  Media has the potential not only to report for us but to influence our culture as a whole, which I imagine is why many go into the field in the first place. 

Knowing in real time about every awful event everywhere around the globe can be catalyst for powerful, valuable actions – or overwhelm us and seed violence.  Behaviors that might never have been contemplated before are now scarily available for consideration in moments of individual crisis.   Remaining aware that actions (even putting together a newscast) have consequences is a huge step towards feeding a more useful wolf. 

Censorship cannot be the answer, because freedom of speech is core to our safety.  Yet disturbing imagery apparently sells, so we keep seeing more of it.  Did the Sandy Hook recommendations about gun control and school safety get as much coverage as the event itself?  More media attention on issues such as how to report about violence without dwelling on it, or how to de-stigmatize mental health difficulties while breaking down barriers to care would probably benefit us all.  Society-level mindfulness like this would mean nurturing healthy wolves on a different scale. 

Not all Wolves are Scary

Amazingly, apart from a small minority, nearly all the billions of people on this planet choose to exist peacefully together.  They're even intentionally helpful to each other.  If not that, at least they leave each other alone.  On any given day, almost everyone on this planet, thankfully, behaves well.

This is not meant to be naïve.   There is plenty to address emphatically around specific individuals or groups who put others in danger, and plenty to change about how we collectively live.  Yet most people are remarkably skillful at managing anger and frustration and following the rules of society, right down to the Miracle of Rush Hour when thousands of drivers hit their breaks in sync, stop at red lights, and stay on the correct side of a swath of yellow paint on the road.

There's no benefit in denying reality.  There is great benefit in actions that prevent future disasters, or ameliorate suffering around the globe.  But as individuals, as a society, and even as a responsible news media, we can pause and reassess what information we choose to emphasize in this modern, electronically connected world.   For our own well-being and that of our world around us, we can select the wolves we want to nurture, not the ones fed for us. 

Raising a Healthy Wolf

A core message within mindfulness practice is the often challenging reminder that throughout the world everyone is driven by similar desires.  Each person may picture it differently, but wants relief from suffering, or to find happiness.  Those with whom we disagree, and even those who behave in frightening ways, seek their own image of peace, however twisted it may appear.   We can fully defend ourselves while still acknowledging that basic reality – and perhaps note that in taking steps to eliminate their suffering we protect ourselves.

Yet mindfulness itself isn’t the point exactly.  Acting with intention and awareness is the larger concept – and any of us can do that at any time.  In a busy, distracting world where any disturbing event anywhere races towards us in a moment, we can proactively care for ourselves.  Maybe set aside an urge to stare at repetitive news coverage, take note of whatever has happened with compassion, and then allow our mind to settle before resolving on a next step forward. 

As Grandfather suggests in the folk tale, remain aware and feed the wolf of your choosing.   Emphasize what is going well without candy-coating the rest.  Take action when you can, while firmly making choices about where to give attention in life – and in your mind.   Who knows, if enough of us focus on the healthier wolves more of the time, maybe we can even influence the tone and content of tomorrow’s headlines.