One of the mind’s most pleasant and, at the same time, most tormenting occupations is to dream of a better life. How many times have we tried to generate a change for the better by means of a new purchase, new friends, new house, new job, new relationship or other ideas for a fresh start?
While changes can, in certain circumstances, actually improve our lives, a brief word of caution formulated by psychologist Daniel Kahneman puts things into perspective: “Nothing in life is as important as you believe it to be when thinking about it.” With this sentence, Kahneman described a cognitive illusion (the focusing illusion, also called the focusing effect) which is hard to avoid, even when you are aware of its existence.
The mechanism of the illusion is simple: when we focus our attention on a thing, we tend to overlook other important things, so that the thing that has captured our attention acquires exaggerated and unjustified weight in the reasoning that follows. This is how we explain that, after watching a documentary on a Western city, we tend to believe that moving to that place would make us happier, or, after seeing a piece of news on a family which has travelled for a year around the world, we think that this is what might be missing for our family to be happy. This is how we come to think that a new relationship or a new house, moving to another city, or a new job has the power to solve our unresolved problems and to change our lives. Advertisers are well aware of this and they constantly fuel the illusion that happiness will be delivered with our next purchase.
In reality, happiness never depends so much on one thing to guarantee or endanger its presence. Even those who end up being immobilised in bed are able to regain their happiness once their minds stop focusing on what they have lost and the limitations they are confronted with. The mind can interpret reality in such a way as to allow happiness to flourish or be crushed, independent of the external circumstances.
But if nothing on earth can be credited with the birth or death of happiness, where does that leave God? Is He able to make us happy if we focus on Him?
The Bible repeatedly asks humans to focus on God. But is it not this very idea which is to blame for the emergence of religious extremism, of those individuals whose focus on their religion brings about absurd, at times, inhuman reasoning? Yes, religious terrorism and any kind of religious extremism or sectarian behaviour are the result of such faulty focusing on some of the related religious ideas. But it is exactly this unfortunate reality that proves that authentic religion cannot be characterised by such things.
It is true that the Bible requires man to focus on God, but the God of the Bible represents the depository of all paradoxical traits (just and good, transcendent and immanent, holy and graceful, etc.) whose coexistence invalidates any extremist argument. This is why the Bible will never require a discriminatory and unhealthy focus only on specific things, which is indeed to blame for the many regrettable excesses committed throughout history on the part of Christianity.
In truth, the Bible talks about priorities and balance. He who renounces himself will find himself, he who takes up his cross will find new meaning, he who seeks the Kingdom of God will receive His blessing for the provision of daily needs. The lives of the biblical heroes show that all life’s aspects are treated with due importance by the Bible and its Author.
That is why the synopsis of practical theology is that God wishes for man to focus on Him—not to break away from the world, his dear ones or his own life, but to avoid focusing on false landmarks which would distort his thinking. When man focuses on God, the more he gets to know Him, the more his life becomes happier, more balanced, more pleasing to God and men alike, more meaningful, and more inspiring for anyone who happens to witness it.
This is why, while science tells us we have very little chance to completely rid ourselves of the consequences of the focusing illusion, the Bible teaches us that focusing on God’s true character, perfect in its complexity, is the solution for man to find the lucidity he needs to take the best and most balanced decisions for his life.
Norel Iacob is Editor in Chief of ST Network and Semnele timpului.