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The focusing illusion causes things to loom large in our thoughts when we pay attention to them — kind of like the Easter egg in this child’s drawing.

Don’t you love this Easter picture? A neighbor shared it with me after a young friend e-mailed it to her. Without any words, the picture tells a wonderful story about what matters to the young artist.

At right, we see the family home. Its shape and size are a bit skewed because this child still struggles with perspective. Is the house one story high? Three stories? Are those dormer windows in the roof? The child pays little attention to the architectural details her skills can’t illustrate. Instead, she focuses on filling each window with a warm yellow and pink glow and carefully placing a puff of smoke above the chimney. Whatever the house may look like in the real world, the child shows us a cozy home with a fire on the hearth.

At center, a tree stands nearly twice as tall as the house. Some trees are actually much taller than houses, but this is an apple tree and they don’t typically grow very high. Three apples dangle from its branches toward the ground — out of reach but hugely appealing. They’re so appealing to the artist that they are drawn as large as the house’s windows. But the tree’s gigantic trunk stands like a pillar, holding the tree’s leafy crown and tempting fruit far away from the diminutive artist, even though they dangle tantalizingly within view.

At left, the artist gives us the sun and a single elaborately decorated Easter egg. All the rest of the picture is truly just backstory to this glorious egg. It’s taller than the tree, maybe five times the size of the house. It reaches nearly to the sun, every inch covered with row on row of carefully detailed decoration. This wonderful egg is the child’s story of the family Easter. Is it an egg she found? An egg she decorated? Her own imagination of the best egg there could be? We don’t know. We just know that the egg is the important thing. It’s what she has focused on, and it is therefore what she has focused on in her drawing.

Our Giant Egg: Whatever We Focus On

In the same way that this youngster’s enthusiastic focus has exaggerated the size of her egg, we also are prone to overemphasize anything we focus on. Marketers use this tendency to their advantage. They even have a name for it: the focusing illusion.

The focusing illusion describes the way we can be encouraged to focus our attention on just one particular aspect of a product so we are more likely to buy on the basis of that characteristic alone. If a particular sofa is both very comfortable and very expensive, marketers can sell more of them by focusing our attention on comfort instead of any price considerations we might have. Sometimes they do this in ways that are easy to deconstruct — ads that show a parent and child cuddled together on the sofa, or an adult crashed out on the sofa under a handmade afghan. Other times, the focusing trick may be less obvious. One widely reported marketing test found that buyers would become focused on comfort if sofa ads included pictures of fluffy clouds.

Because of the focusing illusion, a sofa ad that includes images of clouds will incline buyers to prioritize comfort over other considerations.

What makes this an illusion is the mental sleight-of-hand it uses. The focusing illusion draws our attention to a single issue and distracts us from other concerns we bring to the buying decision. Like a magician who waves a handkerchief with one hand while dislodging a concealed coin with the other, the marketer focuses us on a single issue to distract us from other concerns. That makes it easier to dislodge the coin from our pockets.

When Mental Illness Becomes the Focus

What does this have to do with mental health?

Think for a minute about what comes to mind when you hear the phrase “mental health.”

In the 21st century West, the words “mental health” are less likely to conjure the ordinary strengths of the ordinary capable people you know than to focus your attention on “mental illness.” Mental illness is what you read about in newspapers and magazines, see in the movies, learn about in school and community educational campaigns, watch ads about. You know names for a number of “mental illnesses” — depression, bipolar disorder, general anxiety, social anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder. You know about “toxic personalities” and “narcissists.” You have learned that pills can provide relief from mental illnesses, and you’ve tuned out the soothing hum of listed side effects at the end of the TV commercials. You may even have learned a list of suicide precursors that you review anxiously every time your child yells, “I can’t stand this! I wish I was dead!”

Your mind has been refocused from the idea that mental health is the norm for most people — an ordinary way of life that we learn from each other’s strengths, sufferings, struggles and successes. You’re now focused on the idea that difficulties are mental illnesses, they are everywhere, and they require professional treatment.

And the professionals who do the research, provide treatment, advertise treatments and advocate for treatment funding have encouraged this focus. In the 70-some years since my mother’s Aunt Bessie was sent away to a psychiatric hospital in Maine, the proportion of the US population believed to suffer during our lifetime from what we call “mental illnesses” has mushroomed from less than 1 percent to roughly half.

Refocus: Churches Can Support Mental Health

Mental illnesses and their professional treatments have become the giant Easter egg in our thinking about ordinary suffering and mental health problems. The ordinary, healthful life represented by the child’s apple tree is appealing, but its fruit seems out of reach. And while we’re aware of the cozy warmth we can find in relationship with those to whom we belong, that idea is crowded away into a cramped corner of our imagination.

A sense of belonging is, however, a core element of good mental health. And belonging is one of the key attributes of a good church community.

Belonging is essential to mental health. (Photo from Tacoma Park church picnic is by Michele Joseph.)

Healthy living — good foods, appropriate exercise, meaningful work, living in accord with our sense of purpose — is also essential to mental health. All of these fall readily under the umbrella of good Christian living, something our congregations can nurture in us all.

Image by Rudy Anderson from Pixabay

What churches aren’t equipped to do is deal with long lists of diagnoses and brilliantly colored assortments of pills. And that’s fine. Because those are much less essential to mental health than our current, illusory focus would seem to make them. We’ve become focused on identifying one of hundreds of mental illness diagnostic labels for emotional pain and pushing the sufferer toward palliative medicines. In so doing, we’ve lost focus on the many gifts God has provided us to support one another in good mental health.

In this season of Easter celebration, let’s stay focused on what brings us life. Meaning, belonging, purpose, value, and hope — these are the tools we as God’s people use to support mental health in one another. Medicines and diagnoses have their place, but their place must be shrunk to an appropriate size in our thinking. Like the child’s giant Easter egg, they must not take over the place that warm relationships and healthy living are intended to fill.