See the Big Picture
The brain’s negativity bias can make us lose sight of the whole.
Posted May 07, 2018
The tree or the forest?
See the big picture.
I once went to the movies when it was raining and brought my umbrella. Arriving early, I sat down on a bench to read, then headed to the theater. Suddenly I heard, “Uh, mister!”—and turned to see a teenage boy with a friendly smile running toward me with my umbrella. He didn’t know me but went out of his way to help a stranger.
As a small frog in a huge pond, I once gave a talk at the World Government Summit in Dubai, and had a similar experience. Political news can sometimes be alarming. Yes, whatever is truly bad is truly bad. But meanwhile, what I saw in Dubai was a thousand or so people, each one representing thousands if not millions of others in the United Nations, nonprofits, government agencies, media, religious organizations, and businesses that are working hard to nudge our world to a better place.
The vast majority of human acts each day are constructive: making meals, tending to children, saying hello, restraining anger, completing tasks, planting seeds, teaching, healing, nurturing, cooperating, smiling, and on and on it goes. Recognizing this truth is comforting and inspiring. There is still hope!
Here are some suggestions.
Widen the View
The nervous system evolved what’s called a “negativity bias” that routinely scans for bad news. Then the brain fixates upon it with tunnel vision. This may aid immediate survival, but not long-term well-being and healthy relationships.
To counter this tendency, lift up your gaze to include more of what’s around you, and then all the way up to the horizon line. This activates neural circuits that are holistic and inclusive, not locked into a narrow, self-centered point of reference. Or imagine that you are seeing your home, work, relationships, organization, nation, or world from a bird’s-eye view. What looks different from this panoramic perspective?
Also, put current situations in the context of time, 13.7 billion years into the life of our universe. Will the current drama, whatever it is, matter so much in a year? In a century? In a tenth of the lifespan of our species itself, which is to say about 20,000 years from now?
How about the context of space: the conflicts in a home located in the geography of a nation, or one nation’s issues among 200+ other countries, or Earth’s troubles in a universe with over 2 trillion galaxies, each containing hundreds of billions of stars?
The point of doing this is never to deny or minimize whatever pain or dangers are real – but to place them in a larger framework that can bring wisdom and ease a sore heart.
See What’s Working
As an experiment, start looking around your immediate situation to identify specific things that are working. For example, writing here I’m aware of a functioning keyboard, a cup holding coffee without leaking, food in the pantry, pictures of our kids who are doing well, a pond overflowing with rain water but not breaking, my wife living and breathing while using a functioning telephone, my own heart continuing to beat . . .
As you notice things that are working, see if you can find a sense of relief, reassurance, or confidence. Slow it down and take it in.
Consider a troubled relationship. Whatever has been good in it in the past will always have been good. Whatever is good in it today amidst whatever is not is still good.
Even a country: so many ordinary things getting done, roads being mended, schools operating, people speaking their minds, civil society still functioning, factions quarreling fiercely but at least not shooting each other, perhaps House of Cards but not Game of Thrones.
When we see what’s not working in the larger context of what is working, we become heartened, emboldened, and re-focused on what we can do rather than on what we cannot.
Enjoy the Sky
Bad news draws the mind like storm clouds draw the eye. Yet all around those clouds is a vast and untroubled sky. What pops into the forefront of awareness is by definition a small part of the whole, a figure standing out against the ground.
It’s a kind of optical illusion, a well-intended trick by Mother Nature to help her children survive. Sure, deal with the clouds as needed. But remember the sky: the vast networks of human cooperation that dwarf our conflicts, the love that persists, the building up and the mending that dwarfs the tearing down and apart.
And remember the sky of mind, spacious awareness through which thoughts and feelings, fear and anger, pass like clouds—never altering or harming the sky itself.