We are suffering a plague of grackles. I only meant to feed songbirds and sparrows, but first one grackle showed up, and then another. Soon a whole gang of them flew in and took over, chasing away the other birds, and in one afternoon they had eaten all two pounds of the birdseed I had just put out. Surely you must have grackles, wherever you live: swarms of glossy, black, cackling birds that descend on your city or neighborhood or crowd onto telephone wires. They band together in farm country too and a horde of them can quickly consume a whole crop of corn. They are everywhere. They are the bullies of the bird world, or the cockroaches, if you want an insect analogy, and I believe they mean to take over the planet. I despise them and am hereby declaring all out war.
This true tale from my back yard is similar to what happens when I identify with and am captivated by negative thoughts. (This is part of a series I’m writing on 12 ways to live out the resurrection, an idea I got from Richard Rohr. The step for the week is, “Refuse to identify with negative, blaming, antagonistic or fearful thoughts.”)
What might identifying with negative thoughts look like? What is the progression I’m trying to avoid? Like the grackles, one or two thoughts by themselves aren’t that troubling. But if I allow a negative thought center stage, it’s quickly joined by another. And another. As they grow in number, they engage first my emotions, then my desires, my passions. And pretty soon I’m taken over by the swarm of nasties. A passion full blown is as hard to get rid of as these roaming flocks of destruction. As long as I keep putting food out, they will come.
Do I have a choice?
Whether we’re talking grackles or my thoughts, I don’t have to continue to feed them. As Rohr reminds us, though we can’t keep from having critical thoughts, either of ourselves or others, we don’t have to engage with them. We have thoughts, we are not our thoughts. If I don’t feed them or give them attention, they go away.
One thing that’s helped me is simply awareness. Once I’m aware, I’m able to notice how that thought is affecting me and I can stop the progression. Especially if I ask myself how it make me feel. If the answer is angry, anxious, judgmental or resentful, that is not a place I want to stay. “Awareness of our thoughts allows distance from them, which is the first step in discernment.”* I can pray, asking God to quiet my mind. Centering prayer and meditation are especially useful tools. If I stay in the present moment, rather than the past or future, that helps as well. Focusing on my breathing is a good way to remind myself that God dwells in me and gives me Life. And he is found in the present moment. When I calm my thought life, I become aware of that still, small voice calling me to something more.
I wish I could guarantee that fearful and blaming thoughts wouldn’t plague me again. But at least I have a few tools to keep the beasties at bay. And the God who indwells me offers me peace that passes all understanding. Right now, in this present moment.
“My soul, wait in silence for God only, For my hope is from Him. He only is my rock and my salvation, My stronghold; I shall not be shaken.” Psalm 62:5-6
*Mary Margaret Funk, Tools Matter for Practicing the Spiritual Life.