Never underestimate the ability of human beings to focus on the wrong thing. Think about the number of people this past summer who—as the world’s economy was melting down, as the bodies piled up from the global COVID-19 pandemic, as millions lost their jobs—decided that what we should really be focused on are the ethics of selling tiger cubs and the sexual cultic undertones at play among the zookeepers in the Netflix docuseries, Tiger King. What we should be worried about, judging by reactions on social media, is not how we can get everyone tested for coronavirus or for COVID-19 antibodies, but whether the de facto villain in the show, Carole Baskin, killed her first husband, and whether she fed him to a tiger or buried him under a septic tank.
And if it wasn’t a debate about whether Joe Exotic actually hired someone to kill Carole Baskin or whether he deserved 22 years in prison for it that got online tempers flaring, then it was the new logo rolled out by the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams that got people really upset.
They thought it was embarrassing. And unnecessary. People on social media said it looked too much like the logo for KTLA, a famous local television station, or for the LA Chargers, the team they will be sharing their new stadium with once the world (hopefully) returned to some semblance of normalcy.
In truth, what all these people had in common is that they were just too blind to see that they were projecting, that they were distracting themselves from the very real uncertainty that had descended onto the world.
The people who thought the new Rams logo was unnecessary, for example, didn’t mean it in the context of everything that was going on in the world. They meant it from a nostalgic perspective—that the logo the Rams already had was better because it had been there for decades. This is the reaction you often get from people to voluntary newness and change, when everything else around them is in turmoil.
A wise person once described anger as “fear turned outward,” and that’s exactly right.
Most of the time, what makes us upset has little to do with the situation at hand. It has to do with something else. When Marcus Aurelius talked about practicing the art of “having no opinion” he was very aware of the fact that most of our opinions are reactionary and unrelated to what’s actually happening. Better to suspend judgment altogether, he said. Better to let it go.
When he quoted Euripides, “Why should you feel anger at the world, as if the world would notice?” he was pointing to the silliness of the projected anger, of getting mad about distant things you don’t control. You’re going to doxx Carole Baskin and campaign to shut down her tiger sanctuary because she reminds you of your ex-wife and the alimony you are still paying? You’re going to make the Rams’ marketing department feel the brunt of your frustration about losing your job? Or make them suffer for your conflicted feelings about your childhood memories?
There’s a lot going on in the world right now, a lot going on in your life. You could focus on that. Or you could vent on the person who took too long at the stop light. You could get frustrated with your kids for not listening, or you could take a breath and go for a walk. You could write mean or angry things on the internet (as well-meaning but clearly overloaded folks sometimes do when they hit reply to these emails), or you could spend some time thinking about what your triggers are.
Focus on what’s important. Focus on what you control… starting with your own feelings.