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A Contagion of Goodness

A few days ago, I heard someone singing the old Tennessee Ernie Ford song, “Sixteen Tons.” It rattled around in the back of my mind the rest of the day. I disliked that song as a kid, and I like it even less now. Then this guy came along singing it, and there it was. As fresh and clear as if ol’ Ernie was standing right beside me.

Ideas are like that. They can get inside your head and take up residence. Most don’t stay very long, but some, like unwelcome houseguests, refuse to leave. And once they stay, they take over your life. They affect how you see the world; they affect how you react to news; they affect what you say to your friends.

Just like songs, sometimes the ideas that stick in your head are pretty good; others are downright awful. It doesn’t matter much whether we like them or even believe them. The trivial ideas that annoy us shape our perception just as much as the ones we believe to be important and true.

Think about the way social media spreads ideas. They pass from one person to another, not because anyone thinks they are particularly important; they get passed on because they are the most contagious. That’s why we say stories “go viral.” They get into us and we cannot help but spread them to others. Just like the guy singing “Sixteen Tons” in the locker room.

Ideas operate at the subconscious level by influencing our point of focus. Consider the weekend golfer who wants to avoid a water hazard. As long as he is thinking about the hazard, that’s where the ball will go, regardless of his intention.

If you want to hit the target, you have to focus on the target.

And that is why, if you want to control your life, you have to focus on the ideas that are important to you, ideas that give you a target, that point out where you want to go in life. What is not effective—in fact, what is downright counterproductive—is focusing on ideas you want to avoid.

Many of the most contagious ideas today come from the extremes of our two major political parties. They are so focused on what’s wrong with society, they are unable to get us where we should go.

On the right, the idea that keeps getting passed along in one form or another is that government is broken. The result is that the right spends very little time focusing on how to actually govern well.

On the left, the idea that keeps getting passed along is that the establishment is unjust. So much attention is spent on the many ways members of this or that group are disrespected or marginalized, that they spend little time focusing on practical ways to raise people up.

With every passing year, Americans seem to be more focused on what doesn’t work. We seem to be more critical and less collaborative, more prone to anger and less understanding of one another.

The only way to ensure all people are treated with dignity and respect is to focus on the idea that every person has innate worth. If we just focus on the way people are mistreated—on insults and misdeeds—we end up reinforcing the very behavior we oppose.

That is why anti-bullying measures in schools are so ineffective. They not only do not reduce the incidences of bullying, in many cases they make the situation worse by normalizing bad behavior.

The Stoic philosopher Epictetus observed that “everything has two handles, the one by which it may be carried, the other by which it cannot.” He went on to advise: “If your brother acts unjustly, don't lay hold of the action by the handle of his injustice, for by that it cannot be carried.”

When I think about the ideas that have had the most positive influence in my own life—the ideas that help me better understand the world and imagine how things might be improved, I keep returning to these seven: truth, goodness, beauty, love, soul, nature, and grace. Yet I find I rarely take time to talk about the ideas I regard as most important.

I do not think I am alone. Again and again, I talk to people who are discouraged by what they are reading, watching, and listening to. Yet we end up talking about the topics of our mutual discouragement.

We have all lost our minds. We have given over control of the ideas in our heads.

So, for the next seven columns I am going to focus on important ideas that can change the world for better instead of whatever happens to be going around at the time.

Is it naïve to think a handful of people, talking about important ideas intentionally and persistently, could start a contagion of goodness?There is only one way to find out.

February 20, 2020

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