Stewing, part 1

It doesn’t take much to get me started. Set the date for a family visit, schedule a meeting with co-workers, agree to speak on behalf of my favorite non-profit and my mind becomes a bubbling cauldron of anxious imaginings—who will be there, what will I say, how will I say it, what will they say, how will I respond?

In anticipation of meetings or classes or conversations with colleagues and loved ones, I prepare relentlessly. It’s become such a familiar habit that I thought everyone did it and when people compliment me on what they believe are spontaneous comments, I feel a bit like a fraud because I know how much energy I spend turning my thoughts into intelligent remarks.

I believe the world would be a better place if everyone thought about what they were going to say before saying it. The philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin wrote, “The word is a two-sided act.” Speech is both from someone but also, always for another and it’s worthwhile to consider the other before speaking. I’ve had a lot of successful interactions with a wide variety of people because I am thoughtful about what I say and how I say it.

But in recent years, as I’ve explored mindfulness, I’ve come to question this practice. I don’t want to be less careful and thoughtful in my speech but there’s a difference I want to embrace between a thoughtful practice and a mindless, energy depleting, anxiety producing habit.

I’ve observed not only my habit of rehearsing but also my habit of replaying scenes that have already occurred and revising them for a better or at least different outcome. This latter habit reminds me of the French expression esprit de l’escalier. It means staircase wit—the clever remarks we think of too late. Who among us hasn’t reviewed our encounters with others and thought of the perfect rejoinder we failed to come up with in the moment? But I don’t just imagine a smart retort here and there. Some interactions seem to play on an endless loop in my brain. Like my rehearsal habit, there’s some value in examining past actions as a pathway to living more authentically, to being willing to see the impact of our behavior on others. But when I stop myself several times a day to notice what my mind is doing and the answer is almost always rehearsing for the future or rehashing the past, then I know that the one thing I am absolutely not doing is living in the present moment.

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