Narrow focus

I was twelve when I camped for the first time with the Boy Scouts. I’d never slept under canvas before, never slept on the ground before, never cooked food over a camp fire before, and never used a hole in the ground as a toilet before.

And I’d never walked through woods in the dark before.

The scout master announced a late evening hike so I grabbed my torch. A flashlight would be essential to avoid holes on the path, or low-hanging branches, or a tiger stalking us. (Okay, no tigers but I had a vivid imagination.)

Off we set, my torch trained on the path as we entered the forest. I needed to be sure where I was putting each foot. But less than five minutes into the walk, the scout master ordered: ‘Switch off your torches. You’re spoiling everyone’s night vision, including your own.’

So all the lights went off, and now I’d no idea where to put my feet. Until, that is, my eyes adjusted. Gradually I began to see bushes and branches, the route of our path, and even my compass as light from the moon pierced through the trees. To my amazement I could see more now than when I was using my torch.

Of course what had happened was obvious. My torch beam superbly lit up what was right in front of me, but had diminished vision of anything outside its beam. Once the torch was off, and my eyes got used to moonlight, I could see the shape of everything.

What I’d been experiencing initially was a form of ‘tunnel vision’. My dictionary defines tunnel vision as ‘a tendency to think only about one thing and to ignore everything else’.

There are situations when that’s good, such as when racehorses wear ‘blinkers’ so they’re not distracted by cheering crowds.

But a narrow focus is more usually a hindrance, perhaps even a danger. Two statements help us understand why.

Looking only one way means not looking other ways

My torch beam lit up only about 30 degrees of the 360 degree circle around me, so I was seeing less than ten per cent of my surroundings. What about other trails I could have followed, or a pond that I might slip into sideways from my path? There were opportunities and dangers, but my narrow vision never picked them up.

Not seeing the big picture has sometimes allowed great evils.

In 2007 many events marked the bicentenary of when the ‘Act to Abolish the Transatlantic Slave Trade’ was passed in Parliament. It didn’t end slavery, but banned British ships transporting slaves from Africa to the New World.

I researched the background to that 1807 Act. I asked myself, ‘Why did it not get passed earlier?’ People like William Wilberforce had campaigned for years. The opponents of change knew what slavery involved – taking people captive, transporting them across the ocean in appalling and dangerous conditions, selling them into bondage to work on plantations. But they didn’t ‘look’ at that. They were focused on other interests. Wealthy and powerful plantation owners knew their huge profits would disappear without slaves. Affluent citizens knew their fine clothes would cost more if slaves didn’t pick cotton. In their ‘beam’ was only what they gained from slavery, and they kept its immorality and cruelty in the shadows.

I spoke at one of the 2007 bicentenary events, and challenged the audience this way: ‘If those people were blind to injustices so they could keep their comfortable lifestyles, what inconvenient evils are we blind to today?’ I read out a news story of women in Bangladesh earning three pence for each shirt they made for an elite western brand. And I described clothes for sale in my local supermarket: jeans for £3; women’s suits for £12 & £7; a sweater for £5. At those prices, how much – how little – did those who slaved over sewing machines making the garments get paid?

A hard truth is that we don’t see what we’d prefer not to see. We focus on what we want, and leave the inconvenient consequences of our ‘wants’ in the shadows. It’s what the affluent did in the 1800s and it seems not a lot is different now.

Things we can’t see or don’t want to see won’t change

If I don’t see my (imagined) tiger lurking in the shadows, I’m unprepared if it pounces. If I don’t see a friend lying injured under a bush, I can’t help him. If I don’t spot increasingly large pools of water on either side of my path, I may walk into a swamp. In short, we’ll do nothing about what we don’t see.

Here are three times when nothing changes because we can’t or won’t see what’s outside our narrow vision.

When there’s no will to change    Tony was a good friend while we lived in America. He’d had rough times with his health and become long-term unemployed. But, despite his troubles, Tony’s mind was always active. Which is probably why he scoured the internet for right-wing conspiracy stories, the more outrageous the better, and sent them to us and all his other friends. The subject line of his emails was usually ‘We need to know this!’ These were important news stories for Tony. Well, we searched online for the background to them. Invariably they were either rumours or malicious tales. So we alerted Tony, assuming he’d stop circulating these narratives. But they didn’t stop. ‘After all, they might be true,’ he told us.

Tony’s gaze was focused only where he directed it, in line with his political perspective. He didn’t want to look elsewhere. He didn’t want evidence that contradicted what he already believed, so on he went circulating stories.

It’s easy to criticise Tony for doing that, yet there’s plenty evidence most of us pay most attention to news that confirms the views we hold already – a version of ‘confirmation bias’. We also miss what we don’t want to see, and because what we don’t see doesn’t affect us, we’re not motivated to change anything we think or do.

When we see no way we can make change happen    If we’re sure there’s nothing we can achieve, we don’t try. That point is obvious. Jack can’t swim – he sees someone drowning in a pond, only a metre or two out from the edge – he wades in, grabs the man’s arm and pulls him to safety. Jack knew he’d never be out of his depth, so he acted. Next day Jack is walking by the edge of the pond again – sees someone drowning right out in the middle where the water is at least ten metres deep – because he can’t swim he calls for help but does nothing else because he can’t. The man in the pond drowns.

Now we’ll excuse Jack because he really couldn’t save the drowning man. There was nothing he could do to rescue him.

But what’s our excuse? Sometimes we give up, not because there’s nothing we can do but because we don’t believe we can do enough. Because our efforts won’t make much difference we don’t try. For years I’ve heard reasons/excuses like that for doing little for the eighty per cent of the world that’s poor. Or for doing nothing to cut back on energy consumption in response to climate change.

If William Wilberforce had thought like that there would never have been an 1807 ‘Act to Abolish the Transatlantic Slave Trade’. If William Knibb, a leader among the following generation of abolitionists, had thought like that there would never have been the ‘Slavery Abolition Act’ of 1833 (put into effect in 1834 and slightly later in some territories), which finally set slaves free in British colonies. History is littered with stories of people who faced impossible odds, but went forward anyway and change happened. What history doesn’t record is how many could have made some contribution to change, but they didn’t try. They knew something in the shadows wasn’t right, but made no effort to change it because that seemed too hard. Their legacy is that they did nothing.

When we see what needs to be done but don’t care    I chaired a meeting of about 60 people discussing why people didn’t give enough support for overseas mission and aid. Lots of ideas were put forward: ‘The economy isn’t strong at present’; ‘People are worried about how to support their retirement’; ‘We need to communicate our message better’, and so on. Then a man got to his feet, not someone who normally said very much. But that day his words were powerful: ‘I believe the main reason why support is poor is because people simply don’t care. We – those of us here – don’t care enough to give until it hurts. It’s not surprising then that others, who know much less about the need, don’t care enough either.’ He spoke like that for two minutes. When he sat down there was silence. His words pierced every heart, and there was nothing else to say.

Caring for others is a comfortable concept in our heads, but if care only exists in our thoughts no-one benefits. It has to infuse and energise our hearts and our hands before it does anyone any good. What we see in the shadows never changes if we don’t do anything about it.

Strictly speaking then, sometimes we do see outside our narrow focus. But only dimly; it’s  dark enough we justify leaving the problems in the shadows where they won’t discomfort the lives we enjoy. That’s sad, very sad.

There are times when it’s good to be focused. That’s true. But a narrow focus will always run the danger of becoming tunnel vision. We won’t give attention to all the other things that matter and need our help. Look around, see a world of need and opportunity, care about it, and use everything God has given you to make it a better place.