Earthlings on Fire

Crash Course for the Ravers
Album: Earthling (1997)
Prior Level of Acquaintance: Moderate
Three-Word Review: new, redeeming, frustrating


I’m afraid I can’t help it
I’m afraid I can

This is how I heard the refrain from ‘I’m Afraid of Americans’ when I first listened to it a decade ago while undergoing a root canal. In my current revisit to Earthlings I understand he’s saying ‘can’t’ both times, but the mondegreen version speaks to the state of my head in a month when Americans’ own fear of Americans is devouring the headlines. An alien nation in therapy, as it were.

David Bowie Performing
Side note: Can I just mention how much I love this iconic coat? Big shout-out to Alexander McQueen.

This week I picked up Cal Newport’s book Deep Work. It cites another book I read when it was new. Bear with me while I quote Newport quoting Gallagher:

“The science writer Winifred Gallagher stumbled onto a connection between attention and happiness after an unexpected and terrifying event, a cancer diagnosis….As Gallagher recalls in her 2009 book Rapt, as she walked away from the hospital after the diagnosis she formed a sudden and strong intuition: ‘This disease wanted to monopolize my attention, but as much as possible, I would focus on my life instead.’ The cancer treatment that followed was exhausting and terrible, but Gallagher couldn’t help noticing…that her commitment to focus on what was good in her life…worked surprisingly well. Her life during this period should have been mired in fear and pity, but it was instead, she noted, often quite pleasant.

“Her curiosity piqued, Gallagher set out to better understand the role that attention—that is, what we choose to focus on and what we choose to ignore—plays in defining the quality of our life. After five years of science reporting, she came away convinced that she was witness to a ‘grand unified theory’ of the mind:

‘Like fingers pointing to the moon, other diverse disciplines from anthropology to education, behavioral economics to family counseling, similar suggest that the skillful management of attention is the sine qua non of the good life and the key to improving virtually every aspect of your experience.’

“This concept upends the way most people think about their subjective experience of life. We tend to place a lot of emphasis on our circumstances, assuming that what happens to us (or fails to happen) determines how we feel….According to Gallagher, decades of research contradict this understanding. Our brains instead construct our worldview based on what we pay attention to….As Gallagher summarizes: ‘Who you are, what you think, feel, and do, what you love—is the sum of what you focus on.’”

Right after the success of Donald Trump in last week’s election, I wrote this. There I suggest that one can (internally) scream the Who’s most central prayer, “Love, Reign O’er Me,” regardless of one’s own circumstances. I stand by that notion, though I wrote it up amid big emotions.

Soon after I hit ‘publish’ on that post, I returned most of my focus to my very absorbing job and to the books I’m reading and writing outside of it. I continue to take in the reputable news, but I’ve stepped back from the seductive collective freakout that’s been happening in my social media. And, to my surprise, I’m feeling OK. I found my state of mind pithily described in Matthew Parris’ Times of London column (paywall): “I spent about 30 seconds trying to feel distressed but abandoned the attempt. I felt only inquisitive.”bowie_dont_know_quote

Am I content with the election of Donald Trump? All of the no. Yet, at this uncertain time, I’m more curious than despairing. It’s kind of like when I was having a root canal—but I was also having my first listen to Earthling.

This is all very well for you, you may be saying. You’re a middle-aged employed white American citizen who lives in New York City, and you’re therefore much less likely to suffer directly under a Trump administration. It’s the less fortunate, the nonwhite, the not-born-here who are in the line of fire. Try preaching to them that curiosity is an appropriate reaction, or that one can cry love in all circumstances. And there’s the rub, because if you’re saying that, I agree with you.

Winifred Gallagher and Cal Newport have a great insight into using one’s focus to adjust to one’s own circumstances. It says nothing about where the circumstances of others come into one’s field of vision. Righteous cries of distress echo from every corner of the country and the planet. To shut it all out and live in your happy place is surely selfishness to the point of obscenity. And once you concede that some of your attention must go to those voices, how to select which particular sufferings get any? Is there anything you can do to actual good effect? If there is, must you strain every synapse in that direction? If there isn’t, must you still bear witness? Nobody can do everything. Some circumstances can’t be helped. Yet everything is urgent.

I’m afraid I can’t help it
I’m afraid I can

I have the feeling that Bowie’s being satirical when he says “I don’t want knowledge/I want certainty” in ‘Law (Earthlings on Fire)’. Nonetheless that line too resonates with a paralyzing awareness of other Earthlings’ pain. Knowledge is tolerable only with certainty of what one can do in response to it. As the much-shared cartoon puts it, “My desire to be well-informed is currently at odds with my desire to remain sane.”

Around the time of Earthling’s release, Bowie said in a Q interview, “What I need is to find a balance, spiritually, with the way I live and my demise. And that period of time—from today until my demise—is the only thing that fascinates me.”

Speaking of ‘today until my demise’ – Next: Happy (50th) birthday, Mr. Bowie!

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