Life is exhausting for overthinkers. Every word we speak, every sentence we write, every action we take, every decision we make has to go through a three-part process.
- The pre-overthink of the moment.
- The crippling anxiety during the moment.
- The post-overthink of the moment.
This three-part process is in a constant loop in our heads for every possible moment that has, is or will be experienced in our accessible memory.
Here are some examples:
- While making breakfast, I examine every minute detail of a conversation I had with my husband last night about whether Cheetos count as a dairy product.
- While changing a poopy diaper, I run through every possible way an upcoming dinner with my in-laws could go wrong.
- While sweeping the floor, I dwell on how I said hello to the mail lady three days ago and whether or not she took it wrong.
- While making lunch, I revisit a conversation I had in 7th grade and finally come up with what I should have said instead of what I actually said.
- While rocking the baby to sleep, I grow anxious about an upcoming visit from my parents that doesn’t even exist yet.
- While writing an email, I break out into cold sweats trying to find the exact perfect wording so that I don’t come off as an idiot to the email’s recipient.
- While doing the dishes, I go back to my computer and re-read the email I just sent and convince myself that I’m definitely going to come off as an idiot to the email’s recipient.
- While making dinner, I wonder if my husband, who is at work, hasn’t texted me back yet because he somehow took my last text wrong.
- While folding laundry I wonder if the pimple on my chin is actually a tumor.
- While brushing my kids’ teeth, I ponder a smug statement someone made on social media and the various ways I would respond to it to help them see how wrong they were knowing I would never, in practice, respond to it.
- While brushing my own teeth, I go through every pro and con in triplicate of switching to off-brand paper towels.
- While laying in bed trying to sleep, the parade of overthinking begins. Everything I’ve ever done, said and written since I was four-years-old starts to replay itself simultaneously with all the possibilities of the things I will do, say and write in my future. The parade doesn’t end until my brain exhausts itself and finally passes out, allowing the rest of my body to get the rest it desperately needs.
Why does my brain do this? To what evolutionary end could paralyzing over-thinking possibly lead? It’s nearly an hour-long process to decide what I’m going to eat every day so I can guarantee that, had I been left to my own devices, I never would have gotten out of the analyzing phase to make the decisions to get married and have children. And aren’t those the very decisions that the evolutionary process moves towards? The propagation of the species? So, why is my brain like this?
The pieces to this puzzle started to fall into place while reading GK Chesterton. He was the first hefty spiritual reading I’d ever engaged in. I would read a little of The Everlasting Man, and then spend hours afterwards thinking about what I’d just read. But I didn’t feel out-of-sorts and a little sick to my stomach like I did when I spent the same amount of time thinking about my neighbor telling me dandelions didn’t count as flowers. When pondering Chesterton’s writing, I felt more serene and joyful. I would find myself doing dishes and smiling while thinking about God telling the sunrise and daisies to “Do it again!”
Further spiritual reading followed: More Chesterton, CS Lewis, the Little Flower, Saint Augustine, Saint Francis De Sales, Fulton Sheen, Saint Theresa of Avila, Flannery O’Connor, Caryll Houselander, Dorothy Day, Peter Kreeft, Pope Benedict XVI and John Bergsma. It was through Dr. Bergsma’s books that I found the holy grail of keeping my mind busy with something other than dwelling on my mother-in-law pointing out the dust on my ceiling fan every time she visited – scripture study.
For most of my life, I’d been under the illusion that not only did I know the gist of the important parts of the Bible and, therefore, didn’t really need to read it all the way through but that, aside from a few key passages, it was a fairly saccharine and boring book. More horrendously wrong I could not have been.
What I thought were very quaint, mawkish stories were actually Sunday school versions of those stories. The actual stories, as recorded in the Bible, were anything but quaint and boring (and probably not appropriate unedited for Sunday school-aged children).
There are tedious parts, yes, but, for the most part, if a person is reading the Bible and thinking it boring, they are reading it wrong.
Here’s the coolest thing about the Bible: Everything in the Old Testament points to the New Testament but the reader doesn’t know it until they’ve read the New Testament to see what the Old Testament is pointing to. Saint Augustine said it best (Saint Augustine always says it best), “The Old is in the New revealed, the New is in the Old concealed.” The Old Testament is a map to God and the New Testament is its key.
To put it in modern terms, the Bible is like a Tom Clancy novel (Okay, modern times during the 80s and 90s). There are multiple plotlines all over the place, some of which the reader is saying to themselves, “What in the heck does this have to do with anything?” Then as you get near the end, all the plotlines, even the inexplicable ones, come together in the most profound, clever and satisfying ways.
And it’s written with so many layers of meaning that there is no end to the thinks you can think. There’s even a name for people who sit around and think all the spiritual thinks. They’re called contemplatives.
It then occurred to me that maybe overthinkers are just misdirected contemplatives. Our brains are working exactly as they are supposed to, we’re just overthinking the wrong subject material. Instead of turning our thoughts inward and focusing on ourselves and every possible social faux pas we may have committed since the 1980s, we’re supposed to turn our thoughts outward and focus on the cosmos, it’s Creator and the fact that He became human, walked amongst us, died for us in a very particular way, rose again and how we’re supposed to apply all that to our lives in order to become perfected.
In fact, once one gets started, it’s hard not to think about the Story of Salvation and how one’s life fits into it. As I read about the rise and fall and rise and fall and rise and fall of Israel and the coming of their Messiah to finally raise them up for good, I found more of my overthinking time being overtaken by contemplation time.
Here are some examples:
- While making breakfast I wonder what golden calves I have in my life that I need to do away with.
- While changing a poopy diaper, I think about how completely against the human notion of power it was for God to incarnate as a little baby instead of surfing into time on a lightning bolt as a fully grown, very muscular man with cobblestone abs who just laid waste to Israel’s enemies by calling fire down from the sky to smite them.
- While sweeping the floor, I contemplate the despair King David must have felt, laying on the floor, praying for the life of his baby.
- While making lunch, I revisit Father’s homily last Sunday in which he made a very good case for throwing our televisions and smartphones out the window.
- While rocking the baby to sleep, I wonder what it must have been like for the Blessed Mother to hold the God of the universe in her arms while He slept.
- While writing an email, I comfort the recipient that God told us not to worry about tomorrow for tomorrow will worry about itself.
- While doing the dishes, I remember reading that Mother Theresa said “Wash the plate not because it is dirty but because you love the person who will use it next.”
- While making dinner I imagine what life will be like with my husband when (God willing!) we are on the new earth in our resurrected bodies, perfected.
- When folding laundry, I think of tumor/pimple, shrug and repeat the words of Queen Ester. “If I perish, I perish.”
- While brushing my kids’ teeth, I ponder a Fulton Sheen essay in which he illustrates the response of Adam and Eve when they found Able dead, having never seen death before.
- While brushing my teeth, I reflect on Jesus making his disciples breakfast over an open fire after his resurrection and how remarkably understated that was after all He had just done.
- While lying in bed, I drift off to the words of the good thief reverberating in my head. “Remember me in your kingdom.” I wonder what it was he saw in the beaten, tortured, man crucified next to him that made him utter those words. I pray I see it too when my time comes.
Jesus, himself, addressed overthinking busy bodies like myself while he was hanging out with Martha and Mary. Mary was sitting at His feet, drinking in His every word while her sister Martha was running to and fro, anxious about things of the world. Martha told Jesus to make Mary help. Jesus replied, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.”
I am a Martha trying to cultivate my overthinking into contemplation so that I might become a Mary. My mind is finally choosing the better part and – despite all attempts from that three-part process to start up again – I am determined that it will not be taken from me.