Sometimes it seems like my brain has a mind of its own. There I am, quite happily focused on something of note, and all of a sudden it’s up and left me, chasing after a random, shiny object that passes by.
If we’ve been silent together for some time, Marcia will occasionally ask, “So, what are you thinking about?” More interesting than the actual answer is tracking back the sequences of thoughts that got me to the topic. It’s sort of mental pinball, or attempting one of those “which-kid’s-string-is-attached-to-the-balloon?” puzzles in children’s activity books.
Though forgetful, I have decided my mind is not like a sieve. Instead, I compare it to our Roomba. This automatic little vacuum trundles around the room on its own, bumping into things and getting redirected, picking up loose ends and debris along the way. Then it needs emptying.
Paul didn’t have a robot cleaner to reference when he wrote to the church at Corinth, but he knew that an unguarded mind could collect all kinds of junk (and this was before social media!). That’s why he urged the believers there to “take every thought captive” (2 Corinthians 10:5).
There’s a continuum of unhelpful thoughts, of course. At one end there’s the bad stuff we shouldn’t be thinking about at all, tut tut. In the middle there’s the unhelpful stuff, things that may matter at some level but that we can’t change. So why bother?
And at the other end there’s the distracting stuff, which may be innocent in itself but keeps us from thinking about what really matters. How many great ideas haven’t I had because I was occupied with that YouTube video of the funny cat?
Don’t forget that Paul wasn’t just a prohibitionist when it came to thinking. In his letter to the church in Philippi, he gave them a list of things they should spend their time thinking about (Philippians 4:8).
I like his imagery in Corinthians because it helps me recognize that thoughts are like uninvited guests: We don’t have to entertain them. We can greet them at the door and tell them, “Sorry, we’re busy.” We don’t have to let them come in and trash the place, or take up our time.
There was a season when this was especially important to me. Life was very difficult, and I’d find myself either replaying in my mind old conversations and situations, or rehearsing ones to come. Over and over again. It was like when your digital music gets stuck and keeps playing the same notes repeatedly. Repeatedly. Repeatedly.
These cycles were draining and depressing. Eventually I forced myself to recognize their onset, and told myself I was going to stop thinking about this thing. Then I’d make myself think of something else. At first it was exhausting, like doing abdominal or pelvic floor exercises after years of inactivity, but over time it became easier. Clenching any muscle gets better with practice.
I also learned that even more effective than turning away uninvited guests is not answering the door in the first place. In my case, that meant not opening certain mail or answering certain phone calls after mid-afternoon, because if I did the information would keep my mind whirring all night. It could wait until the morning.
Remembering this inspires me to firm up my mental muscles once more. I think I need to… hey, look at that!