1 John 3:18—4:6
“You don’t have to believe everything you think.”
It’s a phrase that seems to appear everywhere these days, from bumper stickers to headline articles in the Huffington Post and Psychology Today. It captures, in a brief and memorable phrase, some real wisdom about the nature of the mind. The mind is capable of being held hostage, by seemingly demanding and imperious thoughts and feelings, all day long. “What the hell is his problem?…I need to buy milk!…I love her so much I would die without her…That is the cutest puppy I’ve ever seen!… Why am I so worthless?” The mind is also capable of gentle, inner observation, quiet equipoise, and spacious non-judgment, capacities which can open a space of sanity and healthy detachment in our experience of self. Through the development of an inner, witnessing presence, we can begin to see the truth in that phrase: “I don’t have to believe everything I think.” We can forgive ourselves for the negative thoughts that arise and we can avoid the ego’s swift, smug self-congratulation for positive thoughts that all too quickly dissolve. We can actively engage our thoughts in prayer with a certain level of objectivity, as in the Ignatian spiritual practice called the examen of conscience – also sometimes called “examen of consciousness.” We can cultivate our inner muscle of release or self-emptying of thoughts through even older forms of contemplative prayer. We can begin to find in our thoughts essential clues to our integration and our salvation. We can lay claim to the thoughts that tell our true story.
The short story writer Flannery O’Connor enjoyed a loyal but circumscribed following of readers during her lifetime. The life and career of this brilliant young woman, a devout Roman Catholic who spent much of her life in Milledgeville, Georgia, ended in 1964 when she was just 39 years old. Since then, her work has increasingly gained the literary recognition it deserves. Her stories weave together penetrating insight, acerbic humor, irony, and subtle allegory. Unlikely prophets abound and God’s grace lurks in absurd encounters.They are stories that deliver a visceral shock of self-knowledge for the reader with “eyes to see and ears to hear.” All of this of course, should sound like familiar terrain to us followers of a certain story-teller from ancient Galilee. In a talk given to a group of young writers, O’Connor offered the following words about the art of short story writing:
When you write, your beliefs will be the light by which you see, but they will not be what you see, and they will not be a substitute for seeing. For the writer of fiction, everything has its testing point in the eye, and the eye is an organ that eventually involves the whole personality, and as much of the world as can be got into it. It involves judgment. Judgment is something that begins in the act of vision, and when it does not, or when it becomes separated from vision, then a confusion exists in the mind which transfers itself to the story.[i]