Change Your Focus

a watercolor from 2003, House On Fire

a watercolor from 2003, House On Fire

Life can change in an instant. There are collective moments. There are personal moments. For years, my dad kept articles about the conspiracy theories swirling around the Kennedy assassination. It was the moment that marked the end of things as he knew it. Life would never be the same. For many years I shared his fascination because my first memory is an image from John F. Kennedy’s funeral which we watched on black and white television: a soldier leading a horse with empty boots reversed in the stirrups. I suspect that the image was potent for me because it was potent for the adults caring for me as they watched the funeral of the president.

Many years later, on a beautiful September morning in 2001, I sat in front of another television set and watched the Twin Towers fall. I thought, “Life will never be the same.”

With the recent anniversary of that day, on another beautiful September morning, Kerri and I read aloud to each other a book, 102 MINUTES: The Untold Story of the Fight To Survive Inside the Twin Towers. I was surprised by my reaction to the book. It felt a return to the place where we got lost. Like my dad, I missed the innocence that vanished in a single day (doesn’t each generation experience this loss? I imagine my grandfather yearned for a world before the atom bomb).

Throughout the reading, two potent and related metaphors would not let me go. First, a two-part metaphor for what I believe ails our nation. With a hyper focus on profitability, many long standing high rise safety precautions were minimized in the Towers. Less escape stairs meant more rentable space. Structural fire prevention measures are costly so they were either written out of the code or ignored. No one believed these twin Titanics could fail and when they did, the greatly reduced escape routes were either severed by the planes that hit them or were inadequate to accommodate the evacuation of the buildings. Additionally, communication between the police and fire departments was broken – they had the capacity but lacked the will. They did not use their updated systems because they were fighting over who would be in control. Their polarization crippled them on the day that they most needed to communicate.

So, the metaphor. One of the themes of my life (and, therefore, this blog) is the importance and necessity of a conscious placement of focus. Where you focus matters. Focus is a creative act. Our hyper focus on profitability took down the world’s economy in 2008. We’ve deregulated our financial institutions, removing all the safety precautions so that we might, as my pals in the financials services once told me, “Print money from nothing.” And the structure weakens. The wealth of the nation is in the hands of a shrinking few even though, as I learned in Economics 101, a healthy capitalist system is built upon a healthy middle class. No one believes this Titanic can sink. Communication between those who are supposed to be looking out for our safety, The House, The Congress, etc., are famously polarized. They have the capacity but lack the will and do not exercise their communication in the fight over who will be in control. In the meantime, we need them to communicate; waiting until the Tower falls will be too late to start. Our focus is on the wrong stuff.

 A sketch working out some details for House On Fire

A sketch working out some details for House On Fire

Which, brings me to metaphor number 2. This is the metaphor that cures us. The other story of those 102 Minutes is a story of kindness. People reaching for other people. When the disaster struck, the gap between custodian and CEO disappeared. The social divisions were irrelevant. People helped people simply because they needed it. They recognized that they were living a common story, a shared story, not the story of division that predominated a single moment before the planes struck the buildings. Everything changed in a moment. Or, perhaps everything became clear. People died to help other people. Their focus changed.

 

 

 

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