I recently returned from Greece and while I was abroad, I learned about the "Swine Flu," also known as the H1N1 virus, which emerged in Mexico and began spreading to other countries. On my way back to the United States, the concern about this unpredictable virus and whether it would become a pandemic, was evident at the Washington Dulles Airport, which was the first place where I observed passengers wearing face masks for fear of contracting the virus. When I returned to my hometown of Santa Fe, New Mexico, USA (not to be confused with "Old" Mexico) I even saw a woman wearing such a mask while driving her car!
Alright, I'm all for being taking precautions and being hyper-vigilant whenever a potentially dangerous situation arises. I remember well the SARS epidemic in 2003 which killed more than 800 people around the world. And I know that the World Health Organization hiked its alert level to 5 from 3 -- the last step before a pandemic -- due to the flu's spread and the threat that it could target poor and disease-prone communities. At the same time, I would not go as far as Vice President Joe Biden who raised the alarm even further by recommending, albeit by implication, that people not fly or ride public transportation!
To be sure, this is a time for being attentive and for remaining on our guard. Likewise, it is a time for common sense. As scientists are still trying to assess this new virus and develop a vaccine for it, we also must recognize that "regular" seasonal flu strains kill between 250,000 and 500,000 people around the world every year. In the U.S. alone, to put the new "crisis" in context, about 36,000 people die every year from flu-related causes. And U.S. health officials are cautiously optimistic that this new swine flu isn't as dangerous, relatively-speaking, as first feared, while recognizing of course that commonsense precautions are still necessary.
Let me underscore that it is important and reasonable to be hyper-vigilant as this complex human drama continues to unfold. At the same time, I'm reminded of the dangers that lurk behind the watchful eye of the beholder. Remember the period immediately after the attacks of September 11, 2001, when we were also called upon to be hyper-vigilant? Good intentions aside, because we were afraid of "terrorists" and were on high alert, in our mind's eye we increased the likelihood of "seeing" suspected terrorists even if they were innocent people who just happened to fit a predetermined "profile!"
The Paradox of Intention
This behavioral phenomenon, which is closely related to hyper-vigilance, can effectively lead to working against ourselves. In my book, Prisoners of Our Thoughts, I describe this meaning-focused principle as "paradoxical intention," that is, we become so obsessed with or fixated on an intent or outcome that we actually work against the desired result. In the case of post-9/11 terrorism, we became obsessed with or fixated on finding terrorists, and guess what? We began to "see" potential terrorists everywhere we went! Now, in the case of the swine flu, many of us have become obsessed with or fixated on the symptoms of the disease, and guess what? We begin to observe in others or manifest in ourselves these symptoms whether they/we actually have the flu or not! Consider the case of Mexico having to charter a plane to bring home 70 of its citizens from China who were seized at the airport and quarantined, declaring that the swine flu epidemic was no reason for "repressive and discriminatory measures." Hyper-vigilance or over-reaction, you decide.
Paradoxical intention, in this regard, involves two other "hyper" behaviors that, again, are related to being hyper-vigilant. One is called "hyper-intention," that is, the obsession with or fixation on a result or outcome. Put differently, the end justifies the means, since we are intent on achieving our aim no matter what (even if it is unrealistic, improbable, or not even necessary). And the other is called "hyper-reflection," that is, the obsession with or fixation on "seeing" something in ourselves or in others. Isn't it amazing how frequently we "see" things that we are intent on seeing even if those things are not really there? You know, our mind has a funny way of playing tricks on us when we allow it. Paradoxically, in combination the dual forces of hyper-intention and hyper-reflection serve to work against even our best intentions. In other words, we actually work against ourselves and, as a result, may exacerbate the situation at hand rather than resolve it!
What is the antidote, you ask? Let me suggest first that you try to let go and lighten up about the situation you are facing -- be it concern about the swine flu or anything else in your personal or work life. This will help you temper your need for hyper-vigilance and put the situation into a more reasonable and workable context. In turn, this shift in attitude and perspective will help you avoid the human tendency to "hyper-intend" and "hyper-reflect" (and for some, even to "hyper-ventilate!") when dealing with crisis situations. Trust me, I have used this advice many times in my own life, as well as have observed it work effectively in the lives of others. Without hesitation, I can assure you that it helps. In the final analysis, it is also more than simply "hype!"
Alex Pattakos, Ph.D.
author, Prisoners of Our Thoughts
founder, Center for Meaning
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