Six short years ago, a catchy phrase appeared with the soundtrack of The Lego Movie. Once you heard it, you could never unhear it; it’s an earworm.
Everything is awesome! Everything is cool when you’re part of a team!
Everything is awesome when you’re living out a dream!
The machine gun rhythm of the hook fits perfectly when a declaration of joy is needed. It’s a rat-a-tat of sixteenth notes with an accent and tie on the final beat. Go on, sing it with me: EVE – RY – THING – IS – AWE-SOOMMMMMMEE!!!!!
The rhythm sticks with me, but since Ma—rch, the lyric has changed. One simple substitutionary syllable makes all the difference. Go on, sing this one with me: EVE – RY – THING – IS – AW – FUUULLLLL!!!!!!!
Everything is awful. A global pandemic, friends and family members ill, people dying, isolation, complete disruption of routines, interrupted education, abandoned rituals of celebration and mourning, lost jobs, financial insecurity – the list connected to COVID goes on and on. Add the dynamic of racial tension and suspicion of our civil and social structures, mix in a highly divisive political climate and a presidential election and you’ve got everything you need for mayhem. Everything is awful.
Or so it seems.
Ever heard of the Baader Meinhof effect? It’s the fancy term for what happens when you believe that something is happening more often than it actually is. Increased awareness triggers a certainty that something is happening with increased frequency—but the facts don’t always hold up.
Here’s an example: Before I became pregnant, I rarely thought about pregnant women; but once I was aware of my own pregnancy, pregnant women were everywhere. Everybody was pregnant! Or another: A few months ago, I began to think about buying an Apple watch to monitor my health. The next day, I noticed that everyone I knew wore an Apple watch.
This is not true, by the way; plenty of people around me don’t wear a watch at all. But the few that I did see, along with a recent awareness of my desire to purchase one, put my brain into an attention bias mode that formed a very believable pattern of what I perceived to be facts in my brain.
Marketers and advertisers love this; it fuels the retail market by manipulating our desires and convincing us that whatever everybody else has that is working for them, ought to be ours as well. Because everybody has it. Most of us heard or used that eternal teenaged trope when trying to persuade our parents: But everybody’s doing it!!!
But here’s the thing: It’s not true. It’s a selective attention bias, energized by the frequency and timeliness of what we notice. This unconscious ability to see patterns of frequency is a tribute to the processing power of our brains. But it’s a bias that can distort reality to our detriment. And a skewed perception of reality has negative consequences for our mental, spiritual, and physical health. A friend, lamenting her kids’ return to school with masks and social distancing requirements, said, “We’re not supposed to live this way!” On one level, I disagree; an easy life is not guaranteed. We are not immune to difficulties and challenges, and this is a big one. On the other hand, she nailed something that is intuitive and essential to human well-being.
We cannot live without hope.
If everything is awful, all the time, hope erodes. Purpose fades. Apathy and anger seep into our souls—and both our external behavior and internal narratives become destructive. If everything is awful, the desolate terrain of our inner world leads to despair and a downward spiral of demoralized cynicism. And in this, my friend is right: We’re not supposed to live this way.
Whether you’re an extrovert or introvert; a glass half-empty or half-full person—no human soul can navigate despair without consequences. The end result is never beneficial to anyone.
When faced with the unrelenting pulse of everything is awful, I know that action is necessary. While I might soak in the pity party for a bit without consequences, the ongoing danger is real. Rationalizing won’t help; fighting or arguing someone’s position is pointless. There’s rarely a good way to talk myself out of this mentality. Instead, a sort of reverse engineering is required. I take a step back and recognize that my brain is simply working overtime to filter out an abundance of information—and that is something over which I have control. It’s common sense to say that too much time on Twitter or Facebook is unwise. It’s a step towards mental health to admit that the nonstop input of negativity is, quite literally, short-circuiting my brain. It’s acknowledging that the problem is not the “awful”, but the “everything”.
Our brains cannot be forced to process everything without negative consequences.
I can step back, reduce the information overload, and deal with what’s really going on, one thing at a time…
A pandemic? Yes—awful.
But the fact that my beloved friends who contracted COVID are now fully recovered and healthy? Awesome!
Racial inequality and violent protests? Awful.
What I’ve learned about how to be a better human because I’ve actually listened to the difficult experiences of my Black friends? Awesome.
Rude and divisive political discourse and judgmentalism? Awful.
Gaining a better grasp of history by seeking to truly understand and learn from this moment, investing in new relationships that offer different perspectives? Awesome!
It’s a matter of balance, of realizing that the Baader Meinhof effect is real—and then carefully taking steps to counteract what my brain is doing quite naturally, on its own. I can hit the reset button, reframe the narrative, and gently usher myself to a place of health and peace—a place where positions or opinions are not required, only my willingness to navigate all the junk that orbits my day to day universe and intentionally choose what matters…and what doesn’t.
“Summing it all up, friends, I’d say you’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious—the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse.” (Philippians 4:8, The Message)