In A Perfect World
If you turn left out of my house and continue down the block, pretty soon the street turns into a country-like road. On both sides is lush forest, punctuated by a bubbling creek that winds along out of sight to my right. A pleasant place to walk, and a fairly isolated one. Except for my fellow early-morning walkers, of course.
I encountered one of these the other day, someone I hadn’t seen before. She was walking along on the opposite side of the road and something in her posture told me that she had already been walking for some time. On this particular stretch of road, the going on her side was uphill and demanded extra effort. Being on the downhill side for the moment, I had the leisure to observe her.
As she drew closer, step by arduous step, I heard her voice. She was talking aloud to, I assumed, someone she was connected to with a Bluetooth device. Here’s what I heard her saying, the words keeping time with her plodding steps: “Yup. Yup. Yup. That’s right… Keep moving… Let’s go… Keep moving… Yup. Yup. Yup…”
I pictured a friend at the other end of the wireless call, encouraged by that droning pep talk to press onward on her own route. And then a different thought occurred to me. What if my fellow walker was not speaking into a Bluetooth device at all? What if there was no one at the other end of her pep talk except… herself?
This cast the matter in a whole different light. Instead of one friend urging another on, this young woman could be a self-motivator. Someone trudging up the incline at the tail end of a long exercise hike, to the accompaniment of a steady litany of encouragement to herself. “Yup. Yup. Yup. Keep moving. Keep going. Yup. Yup. Yup…”
As we both moved on and out of each other’s sight, I pondered the many kinds of internal monologues that we conduct with ourselves each day.
During most of our waking moments our minds are filled with words, as if we are busy narrating our own lives. They say that the brain is a woefully underused organ, but the ten percent or so that we do use is active on an almost constant basis. Although not always that productively.
Our thoughts are the most personal and private part of us. Still, there are patterns that we all have in common. Let’s explore some of these inner soundtracks together.
From Personal Secretary to Toxic Lockbox
Many of us use our brains as a kind of personal secretary. We employ it to devise grocery lists, menu ideas, appointment reminders, points to raise at our next work meeting, the best route for getting our domestic errands done, and so on.
Efficient, practical, and unencumbered by weighty philosophical reflections, this is what I would call a neutral function of the brain.
But our brains have a darker side, too. On any given day, our inner monologue may be colored by criticism of self or others. It can seethe with anger, envy, resentment, or a host of other negative thoughts. We consider this a safe way to process our less-savory emotions: to view our minds as a kind of lockbox for storing toxic thoughts. After all, as long as I confine my more unpalatable ruminations to my own head, no one will ever have to know about them or feel their sting. Right?
Well, yes… But only up to a point.
The thing about toxic lockboxes is that they are seldom airtight. Sooner or later, if we allow our brains to pickle in negativity, some of that negativity will find its way out to spread its fumes on the air around us. Far better to treat our more poisonous thoughts like transient travelers: here one minute, gone the next. If their stay is no more than momentary, there will be no lingering odor, and no need to guard against a harsh thought seeping out in the form of a harsh word, to lacerate those around us.
But sometimes the thoughts are reluctant to go. Toxic ideas can take on a brooding or obsessive form. Instead of arriving and departing in quick succession, they travel a circular route in our brains, round and round and round again. And because there is no end point to a circle, no conclusion is ever reached. All that brooding intensifies the negative thoughts, whipping them into a froth until they reach a red-hot peak. A volcano about to erupt.
That’s when we need to take ourselves and our obsessive thoughts firmly in hand. To tell ourselves, as I once heard a wise person say and as I’ve mentioned on these pages before: “This thought is not my friend.” And then politely show it the door.
Self-Justification or Self-Motivation?
Another thing we tend to use our brains for is to put together forceful arguments on behalf of this behavior or that attitude. When we find ourselves anxious to justify something which we have either done or wish to do—or even if we simply wish to validate our right to wallow in a particular negative mindset—we put our brains to work composing long, earnest arguments for the defense… and, when applicable, prosecution of the other guy.
Here’s where it becomes vital to be super-mindful of what’s going on in our own minds.
A rule of thumb that works for me is this: whenever I find myself making mental lists of why it’s okay to feel a certain way or do a certain thing, the very fact that I am working so hard to justify it becomes a red flag. It’s a warning bell to tell me that all is not kosher. Think again, that flag or bell seems to say. And I’m never sorry when I do.
At the end of the day, our brains are our servants and not the other way around. We can program them any way we like. Just like you can program your alarm clock to wake you up in the morning, you can also set parameters for your brain to issue warnings when danger is near.
Knowing yourself as only you do, you can learn to identify the pattern of obsessive thinking, angry thinking, envious thinking, resentful thinking, or self-justifying thinking that means you nothing but harm. And then you can use that same brain to devise the necessary safeguards and distractions to keep you safe.
As your personal secretary, your brain is at your disposal. But you’re the one who has to issue the instructions to keep it functioning the way you want it to. The way that will lead you to the high road.
Last but not least, there’s another way we use our minds: the way of my fellow walker. I’m talking about using our minds to motivate ourselves. An inner soundtrack that tells us what we need to hear.
When we’re about to enter a difficult situation, or when we are already in the throes of one, sometimes there is nobody around to provide that all-important word of encouragement except ourselves!
That’s when we need to draw from our amazing brains all the inspirational ideas that we’ve stored there for a rainy day. Ideas about emunah and bitachon, about Hashem’s love, His eternal values, and all the lofty aspirations that can so easily get lost in the hustle-bustle of our busy lives. Most of us keep a private file of one-liners at the back of our minds, pithy and powerful nuggets of thought which can have a powerful impact when pulled out at just the right moment.
Sometimes all we need is a kindly voice in our ear, urging us on to take the next step, difficult as it may be: “Yup. Yup. Yup… That’s right. Keep going… Yup. Yup. Yup…”
Sometimes that voice can give us just the shot in the arm that we need to keep going.
And, sometimes, that voice is our own.