By Eunan McDonnell SDB
Have you ever considered that maybe your thoughts, especially over-thinking, can be a weight dragging you under, affecting your mood, even making you tired?
Our immune system, which normally guards against germs like bacteria and viruses, can malfunction and develop autoimmune diseases. Instead of protecting us, it mistakenly sends out fighter cells which attack our own body. Has it ever occurred to you that perhaps your thinking, at times, might operate in a similar way, working against you?
Why do we tend to dwell on negative thoughts and easily forget the positive? It has been argued that ‘negative events and experiences get quickly stored in memory, in contrast to positive events and experiences, which usually need to be held in awareness for a dozen or more seconds to transfer from short-term memory buffers to long-term storage’ (Dr Hansen). I call this the Velcro-effect, that is, somehow the negative just seems to stick more easily!
In ancient times, Stoic philosophers counselled: ‘Don’t tell yourself anything more than what the initial impressions report… always stay within your first impressions and don’t add to them in your head!’ (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 8,49). There is certainly wisdom in preventing our thoughts from becoming a drama! Once a thought gets into our mind, we ruminate on it and before long, it has grown legs if not wings!
This explains why ‘sometimes we are hurt more by our interpretation than the event itself’ (Seligman).
It is important, then, not to add to our first impressions. But what if our first impressions are wrong! Recently a friend challenged me with these words. “Don’t believe everything you think!” I was taken aback. I found myself becoming defensive. How would you react in a similar situation?
It’s hard to predict how we might react because a lot depends on the circumstances, the quality of the relationship and the significance of what we are talking about. The funny thing is, I can no longer remember what we were actually talking about. Yet this phrase has stayed with me, and indeed haunted me at times! When I recall that encounter, I don’t know whether it was the feeling of annoyance that surfaced first or the thought, “is he telling me that I’ve got it wrong and asking me to doubt myself?”
One thing was certain. I couldn’t doubt my inner reaction. We don’t have control over such reactions. They can emerge from hidden depths with the speed of lightning. Nevertheless, I have learnt that if we stay with them long enough, and take time to process them, they can yield valuable self-knowledge.
The temptation remains for each of us to avoid the journey of self-discovery and stay focused on the person with whom we are annoyed or angry. St Francis de Sales says ‘there was never an angry man who thought he was wrong!’ Isn’t it true though, that when we are angry we indeed feel we’re in the right and the other person is always in the wrong!
Pride appears to follow very quickly on the heels of anger. It takes humility to acknowledge that maybe, just maybe, we don’t have the whole picture. Perhaps, we need to take a step back and look at things differently. I’m not saying we should mistrust everything we think, but simply that we should be open to the truth that there may be more to this situation than my interpretation of it.
Looking back now, my feelings have changed considerably. My heart is filled with gratitude towards my friend for having the courage to challenge me with his comment: Don’t believe everything you think! Rather than restricting me to the self-made prison of my thoughts, it has made me think twice, take a step back and opened up new possibilities.
In his book, The Silent Land, Martin Laird recalls an incident where he encounters four Kerry Blue terriers bounding along in an open field with their master. Actually, three of them were coursing through the fields enjoying their unlimited freedom, but one of the dogs stayed close to his master and kept running around in circles.
Intrigued by this, he eventually approached the man and asked him: “Why does your dog do that? why does he run around in little circles instead of running with the others?” He explained that before he became the owner, the dog had lived practically all its life in a cage and could only exercise by running around in circles.
Laird goes on to say that ‘it is a powerful metaphor for the human condition – that we are free but the memory of the cage remains. Thus, instead of enjoying the open fields of grace and freedom we run in tight circles.’
As we endure the prolonged effects of the Coronavirus in our societies, families and homes, it is understandable why fears and worries have taken root and become almost palpable. Nevertheless, if we scratch these feelings we will often discover the underlying thoughts. When we give way to these ‘afflictive thoughts’ (Cassian) and allow them go unchecked, they rob us, alas, of peace. Thoughts come and go, but at some level, they invite us to conversation, to consent, and then to action.
An important part of the spiritual life is to discern what thoughts we need to embrace and live out, and on the contrary, what thoughts we need to oppose and replace. As Scripture counsels: ‘Be careful what you think, because your thoughts run your life’ (Prv. 4:23). When confronted with thought, then, a simple rule of thumb is to ask two questions:
- Where is it coming from?
- Where is it leading me to?
In short, is it coming from God or another source? Is it leading me to God or away from God? In answering honestly and truthfully these two simple questions, it can help our endeavour to ‘take captive every thought and make it obedient to Christ’ (2Cor 10:5).
As we face into the year that opens out before us, perhaps we could begin with this resolution: Don’t believe everything you think, all of the time!