Thoughts on controlling how and what you think
Inside Your Local Bar & Grille
I went into a local takeout place recently to pick up dinner. Given the COVID-induced staff shortage!, there was a line extending almost out of the building. I took my spot at the end of the line, inside, just in front of the exit door.
I found it annoying that the guy who showed up behind me didn’t just wait outside. He felt the desire to needlessly hold open the door as he waited, standing half inside and half outside. This let in a cold draft and gave me this petty, pointless anxiety about when he was going to close the door. Also why was he wearing shorts in January?
Buuut fortunately I caught myself.
I caught myself realizing that I was over-reacting and over-investing mental energy in something that really wasn’t a big deal at all.
I also realized my thinking here was an example of the type of automatic, self-centered thinking David Foster Wallace warned of in his speech “This is Water.” (1)
I had made an interpretation of reality purely as it related to my needs and desires: this person is annoying, and my life would be better if he only he closed the door.
But, if I had been a little more intentional in my thinking, I may have stumbled upon a different interpretation, one that was probably closer to the truth. Maybe he had way more important things on his mind than optimal X-Y positioning of his physical body in a takeout restaurant. Maybe he had work stress or an ill family member on his mind. Maybe he just wasn’t paying attention, because people make mistakes that don’t always require swift, heavy-handed moral condemnation.
I make these automatic judgments about reality all of the time, but listening to Wallace’s speech, I realize it’s actually a bad habit, because it affects how I think. I’m sure you’d agree.
As Wallace put it:
“Learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience.” (1)
And I believe this choice can be the difference between seeing the world as a series of inconveniences stacked against you or as a series of opportunities to practice empathy, serve others, and become a better person.
It’s an important choice indeed, and one that shouldn’t be made automatically, as Wallace warns, but intentionally.
I think one of the best places to start practicing this choice—of how and what to think—is actually by practicing on the myriad inevitable petty little annoying waiting-in-line-at-the-takeout-restaurant problems you get thrown every day. Typically, like me at the takeout restaurant, it’s easy to take the path of least resistance and default to automatic, self-centered thinking, even if that’s not the healthiest or most accurate form of interpretation.
Why is this old lady walking so slow in front me?
Why is this person taking so long to respond to me?
Why is this person not giving me this or helping me with that?
And who are all these people in my way?
… but is reality only just about “me?”
Mark: Hey hey hey. No. No. My cab. That's my cab. That's. My. Cab.
Other guy: It isn't—
Mark: Schmuck... [Gets in cab]
—The Big Short (2015)
These petty annoyances may seem to be just that: petty and unimportant. But actually they’re not, because I do believe how you think about these small things correlates highly with how you think about much bigger things.
If you let the small things jerk around your thinking, the big things will exert a kind of permanent negative gravity that’s so strong you won’t even notice it pulling at you.
It took some serious perspective for Malcolm X to interpret his seven-year prison sentence not as a death knell or an utter waste of time, but as an opportunity to educate himself, and prepare for his second career as a political activist. I bet that interpretation wasn’t the first one he thought of when he first heard his prison sentence. He probably sulked around like 16-year-old me listening to Coldplay. He had to actively choose to think that way and execute his plan accordingly. To borrow Wallace’s words, developing that perspective was all about controlling how and what he thought about the situation.
Could that be your next superpower?
1) "This is Water", David Foster Wallace