Our attention is our most precious resource. Truly. It’s become mainstream to think about this truth when it comes to our personal lives. We try to watch our cell phone usage around our kids, perhaps, or make an attempt to actually leave work at work so we don’t spend all of our “free time” mentally tethered to our desks. The expanding interest in meditation is connected to this too; we crave spending our minutes — which become our days, which become our lives — on things we really care about, things that really do bring us meaning and pleasure.
But how much do we think about this truth as it applies to our public and political lives?
In the seven months since Donald Trump was elected president, this country has become obsessed with following his every golf swing and formal faux pas.
Whether you voted for him or not, you have no doubt spent countless hours watching and listening to news about him, wading in a Twitter or Facebook stream filled with him, giggling over Saturday Night Live sketches or The Daily Show bits on him, and/or embroiled in conversations about him over family dinners and at neighborhood parties and anywhere else where more than one person happen to linger for longer than five seconds. (And this, by the way, is just the amount of attention we’ve devoted to President Trump; before he was elected, many of us poured precious time and energy into following every act in the circus that was the campaign season.) We are, generally speaking, obsessed…
And we are missing out on so much important news. Last week alone, while the majority of news consumers and many informal conversations focused on Trump’s tweets, for example, researchers reported a long sought-after discovery of a genetic mutation shown to add ten years to men’s lives. The iPhone turned ten. The United Nations refugee agency announced that more people were displaced in 2016 than ever before. One of the nation’s most valued arts organizations announced that it would expand its fellowships year round because there is “a crisis of ambition in this country for choreographers.” And a police officer was acquitted of manslaughter for a fatal shooting that was actually recorded on Facebook Live in real time.
That’s just the narrowly defined news, not the myriad profound, small, and underreported things that are happening all over the world. Right now… as yet another television producer brainstorms how to discuss 140 characters from our president.
And what’s more, even as we obsess about President Trump, we are often missing out on the things he’s actually doing to change the course of history. Last week, a piece in The New York Times that few of us probably paid much attention to started like this:
“When President Trump made his first major decision on the war in Afghanistan, he did not announce it in a nationally televised address from the White House or a speech at West Point.
Instead, the Pentagon issued a news release late one afternoon last week confirming that the president had given the defense secretary, Jim Mattis, the authority to send several thousand additional troops to a war that, in its 16th year, engages about 8,800 American troops.
Mr. Trump, who writes avidly on Twitter about war and peace in other parts of the world, said nothing about the announcement. But its effect was unmistakable: He had outsourced the decision on how to proceed militarily in Afghanistan to the Pentagon, a startling break with how former President Barack Obama and many of his predecessors handled the anguished task of sending Americans into foreign conflicts.”
So when we’re paying attention to Trump, we’re not paying attention to a million other deserving things, and when we’re paying attention to Trump, we’re not actually paying attention to Trump’s most important actions. We’re spending our most precious resource reacting over and over again — learning little, performing outrage or defense, contributing no fresh insight or idea.
It’s time to reclaim our attention.
Next time you open up the newspaper or sit down in front of your computer or open an app on your phone to inform yourself about the day’s news, take a moment to set an intention of reading majority non-Trump-related news. If you do read a piece related to Trump, attempt to privilege the information that is about his actions, not his style. When you are in a conversation with someone and it veers down the path of deconstructing something Trump has said, intentionally steer it away. Take something you learned while de-prioritizing Trump and offer it up to your conversation partner. Be part of the solution — highlighting the world around us that has been deeply and poisonously overshadowed by the political climate of the last year and more.
Media obviously has a role to play here, but so do all of us. Our consumption patterns determine what media producers focus on during the next cycle. What we talk about with our friends, neighbors, families all contribute to either feeding or starving this obsession with big politics, as opposed to science, art, our communities, and so much more.
I’m not advocating for disengagement. There’s never been a more important time, at least in my lifespan, for citizens to lean in hard to our duty — to be aware, to be awake, to take action. But obsessing over tweets doesn’t count as civic duty. It’s rubbernecking, not awareness building, and it’s making us feel more disconnected than ever before. Reclaiming this nation starts with reclaiming our attention, our daily media practices, our everyday conversations.
Speaking as a progressive, I notice that after a conversation about how terrible Trump is and how screwed up everything is (a not-infrequent occurrence), I feel some sense of camaraderie with the person, maybe a little shared righteousness, but also a terrible sensation of helplessness. It’s like I’m floating, with no real hope of grabbing on to anything that I might personally affect or make right. We’re barreling toward a future that has little to do with me. I’m defeated. I’m small and outraged. I’m throwing up my hands, enjoying some tiny, disgusting catharsis through a laugh. I take another bite of my barbecue and watch the kids fight in the pool.
I don’t want that kind of connection. I don’t want to feel that way. It’s time that I take responsibility for the informational and psychic world I build around me and make it not reactive and righteous, but substantive and brave.