In late July, I set out to find baby gray tree frogs. They’re emerald green and (I’ll just say it) incredibly adorable. They are also very difficult to find because they’re well-camouflaged, sitting as they do on green leaves. But because I’m looking for them, I often find them. I see what I’m attending to.
There is a parable of an old woman and two villages. As the story goes, the old woman is sitting on a bench in a valley between two villages. One day a traveler comes by and sits down on the bench next to her. He has come from the village to the east and is traveling to the village to the west. He asks the old woman what kind of people he will find in the next village, and the woman asks him what kind of people he found in the previous village.
The traveler replies that the villagers in the east were terrible people—thieves, drunkards, cheats, and liars. He couldn’t get out of the village fast enough!
“I see,” responded the old woman. “I’m afraid that you will find the same kind of people in the next village.”
Sometime later, another traveler came by and asked if he might sit down with the old woman on the bench.
“Of course,” she replied.
The traveler explained that he had just visited the village to the east and was heading to the village to the west, and he asked the old woman what kind of people he might find there. The woman asked what kind of people he met in the village to the east, and the traveler replied that they were wonderful, generous, and compassionate and that it was difficult to leave such kind-hearted people.
“Ah,” responded the old woman. “You will find the same kind of people in the village to the west.”
We find what we’re looking for.
The moral of the story is obvious: We notice what we attend to.
A few years ago, in my work as a humane educator, I asked a group of middle school students to share what they thought were the biggest problems in the world. Their list filled a whiteboard. Then I asked the children if they thought we could solve the problems they’d named. Only 10 percent raised their hands.
It’s not just students who feel hopeless about the possibility of creating positive change. When I led a workshop for teachers and curriculum designers and gave them this prompt—In 50 years, I want the world to be…—the first response was “still here.” Almost everyone shared this sentiment.
Such feelings don’t bode well for either the mental health of teachers and students or engagement in teaching and learning that leads to positive solutions. Yet, I cannot help but think that much of this despair is a reflection of where we’ve put our attention. In our media-saturated society, we are inundated with terrible realities, frightening stories, a polarized culture, and loud and judgmental voices. This is true in both news and opinion media, as well as much of our social media.
It is undeniable that global warming is an existential threat to much of life on Earth. Terrible injustices, inequities, and poverty persist. Political and cultural polarization is leading to dysfunction in families, society, and government. Animal cruelty in food production and other industries is still the norm.
And yet, in my lifetime:
- Extreme poverty has declined from 50 percent of the world population to less than 10 percent.
- Anti-miscegenation laws were made unconstitutional; civil rights laws were passed; marriage equality became the law of the land by the U.S. Supreme Court.
- The Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and Endangered Species Act were all passed, and (fires notwithstanding) the air and water in many U.S. cities are now cleaner.
- According to a recent Gallup poll, the majority of respondents believe that animals should be accorded rights and/or protections, and plant-based and cultivated meat production will likely lead to the replacement of animal farming and slaughter.
Being attentive to positive changes doesn’t mean that we become Pollyanna-ish and fail to notice or address the problems in our society and world. Just the reverse. It means that we bring evidence-based optimism, energy, and enthusiasm to build systems that are more just, sustainable, and humane. Like the second traveler, it means that we have paid attention to the good and are ready and able to envision and build a future of even greater good.
How to see the positive
It is not easy to buck a system that would bury us in bad news, fear, and suffering, but the fate of the future depends upon our ability to do so. For those who are living lives full of danger, fear, and suffering (rather than just hearing about these things in the media), our despair is the opposite of what they most need. Those who are enduring injustice, exploitation, and oppression—whether people, animals, or ecosystems—need us to believe that wrongs can be righted and to take action accordingly. They need us to pay attention to past successes (and failures) in order to solve problems that continue to cause grave harm.
By practicing the art of attention, we can find the sweet spot where we attend to what is unjust, inhumane, and unsustainable only insofar as this allows us to effectively address problems. You’ll know when you’ve found this sweet spot when debilitating despair remains at bay, and hope is built by the positive fruits of your effort.
Whenever I spot a tiny emerald-green baby tree frog, I feel like I’ve been granted a rare audience, but the truth is that I made that audience happen. Like the second traveler, I found what I was looking for. This turns out to be good for the frog, too. Like most people, I’m inclined to protect who and what I love. Finding baby tree frogs spurs my commitment to ensuring their survival. So, too, looking for the good, along with attending mindfully to the bad, may well spur your commitment to creating more good.