What I Think about When I Don't Have to Think

A while ago I decided to stop trying to make big changes.  They were too hard.  I thought I’d concentrate on making small changes, but much of the time this was even harder.

The big changes were things like writing a novel, learning how to play the piano and design web pages, become a master gardener, and become the most attentive husband any woman ever had ever had.  Those things didn’t happen.  I did some of it.  I learned some things about web design and gardening, practiced some scales, wrote some sketches, and remembered to buy flowers for my wife a few times.  But I didn’t accomplish the big goals.  I soon realized that I never would.

So I did what all the spiritual masters suggest and concentrated on smaller changes.  They say to single out a relationship that’s troubled and do one thing to help it.  Look at one weakness (procrastination is a good example) and work through the to-do list efficiently for a day.

The small thing I picked was what happens in my mind during tedious moments.  I hate standing in line in the supermarket with only magazine covers of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie to look at.  I dislike checkout people who work slowly.  I take traffic jams and constructions delays personally.  I’m mightily annoyed by aggressive drivers in big SUVs.  I’m restless when in conversation I’d rather not have with people I’d rather not be around.  A mild resentment percolates in my consciousness when I do repetitive and boring tasks like cleaning the kitchen and scraping paint and filling out expense reports and correcting book proofs.

These are bad attitudes.  I can’t do much to clean up the political system, bring harmony to my parish, or get work for my unemployed friends and family.  But I can do something about the way I think when I don’t have to think very hard.

Changing this is tough.  My stream of consciousness seems to quickly default to querulous rumination.  But I can work at it.  I can imagine the stresses the weary woman at the cash register lives with, the life that the speeding driver in the SUV leads. I can pray for these people.  I can remember that cleaning and scraping and doing paperwork are honorable tasks, worth doing well.  These things are tough, but do-able with God’s grace.  More feasible than running a half marathon.


  1. I just came across this old entry and wanted to thank you for writing it. The micromanagement of thoughts is a very interesting subject. I have just been through your “Lunchtime Examen” series, and it has struck me several times that some situations involving some people almost always irritate me, and that I might feel irritated mainly because of the thoughts I allow myself to think.
    Praying instead sounds like a great idea. Simple to state, but probably difficult to learn. As with all these small things, it seems like we have grown into habitual shortcomings. We can easily find words that convince us that we “just” have to do this-and-that, but actually doing this-and-that the next day … that’s a challenge, and I believe that we need prayer, guidance, and faith to proceed from the “thinking” step to the “changing” step.

  2. I used to work retail. The person at the cash register will probably be very appreciative of eye contact and a kind word.
    I also used to be very anxious about going to parties and gatherings until a wise friend told me to look for others there who looked awkward or uncomfortable and do what I could to make those folks feel welcome and included, just as a practice.
    Getting the focus off myself and my complaints and anxieties and onto interest in other people has helped me not only at parties, but in annoying situations such as waiting in lines.
    Kudos to you for recognizing something small you can change!


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