I got the following question. Here’s how I answered it.

Dear Dr. Maisel:

I’ve been so mentally distracted by the news lately that I’ve had a lot of trouble getting motivated to paint and then staying focused when I do. Any thoughts on what I might do?

Agitated in Atlanta


Dear Agitated (if I may):

Yes, I think the following point of view can help. Each of us has multiple life purposes, not just one life purpose—that is, many things are important to us, not just one thing. Those life purposes might include creating, maintaining strong family relationships, being of service, taking principled political action, and so on. Every day is a day to live our life purposes—no matter what is going on in or with the world.

One day you may want to take principled political action or in some other way engage in activism; but on another day, you are completely entitled to do your art and indeed you ought to do your art, so as to honor your multiple life purpose choices. You would say, “This too matters” (even though we can always doubt whether art “really” matters) as you hold this rich, rounded view of life, that you indeed must care about the world but that you must also attend to your other important meaning opportunities.

You might also decide to engage in activist art, that is, in art with specific political or social intentions, like the art of Goya. This might be a way to marry your creative needs with your social activist needs. But no person is obliged to marry their needs in this way. If you want to keep your art “over here” and your activism “over there,” that is a completely legitimate choice. The point is the following one: the news of the day, however agitating it may be, must not keep us from living our life purposes; if it does, we end up passive and demoralized.

As to growing distracted while you work, maybe because the news of the days is still agitating you or for some other reason (there are lots of reasons why we get distracted as we try to create), the following is the most important single strategy to learn: to only think thoughts that serve you. If, while you’re painting, you hear yourself say, “That fire in California is still raging out of control” or “I wonder whether I’ll still have health care tomorrow?” you must say to yourself, “No, that thought isn’t serving me.” The thought may be a true one—that fire may indeed still be raging out of control—but that it is true doesn’t make it a thought that serves you to think.

If you can master this bit of cognitive brilliance, to only think thoughts that serve you, you will find yourself much less distracted and agitated as you paint; and much more able to live all of your life purposes.

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