Many of us are ponderers. We take what someone said or a passing facial expression and dwell on it for hours if not days. There’s much to be said for pondering. It can lead to decisions that work — that have been tested in the far reaches of our minds while asleep and awake. But when does pondering become dysfunctional? When is it that thinking about how your boss, partner, friend, spouse, or child looked at you does more harm than good?
It’s not an easy question to answer. But let’s give it a try. Years ago I was fortunate to meet Bernie Siegel, then professor of surgery at Yale and later to become through his books and lectures a guru of healthy living. I was 32 years old, recently diagnosed with breast cancer that had been misdiagnosed for one and one-half years. It had spread. My career careening upward was now, it seemed, spiraling down. I was engaged. There were few support groups for cancer patients. My oncologist sensed I might benefit from spending some time with Bernie. To this day I still use his meditation tapes. But this is what Bernie taught me that is relevant to pondering. He asked me what was bothering me the most. Among the three things pressing on my mind was that a few people I’d considered friends had dropped out of my life. I wasn’t hearing from them. “Call them,” Bernie said. I looked at him with puzzlement. “Why should I call them?” I asked. “Aren’t they supposed to call me?” “Yes,” he said. “But they aren’t.” And who is suffering most from that he queried? Who had the most to lose spending what Bernie described as invaluable energy for fighting cancer on an issue that could be resolved one way or the other. If they are delighted you called, relieved, and sorry because they simply didn’t know what to say, you have your answer he told me. You’ll have done them a favor. If, however, they cannot bear to deal with cancer, then you have that answer. In either case, you then move on. “You need your brain to fight cancer,” he told me. I was using valuable mental space on negative thoughts.
The first person I called was so relieved that she cried. The second person could not bring himself to deal with cancer. He expressed his concern, but he was not going to be in my life. There was a twinge, but the guesswork was over. I could move on. And I did.
There’s a point at which pondering begins to take a toll. It distracts us from what really matters in life. It can sap energy and even lead to illness. Isn’t it better to either take another Bernie recommendation and just imagine that person on a cloud and float him or her out of your life (even if temporarily) or ask whether what you heard or saw is indeed what that person meant? You may not get a straight answer, but you will get it off your chest. If you’re ready to take a disappointing answer as a learning experience, you’ll benefit in any case.
So ponder on regarding where you’ll spend your vacation this year. But don’t ponder long about what someone said or did. If it’s sapping energy you could use for more important and pleasurable things in life, address it or forget it. Get out your comeback repertoire and be ready with “I’m glad I asked” no matter what the outcome. After all, it won’t be on your mind anymore and you’ll have made room in your mind for healthful, positive endeavors.