the power of thinking little

Thinking little is not very fashionable these days. We are supposed to ‘reach for the stars’, ‘follow our dreams’ and above all ‘think big’.

Of course it is good to try and make the most of life, but these messages also carry a danger – they make it easy for us to fall into the trap of ‘all or nothing thinking’.

‘All or nothing thinking’ was explained to me at a depression management group a few years ago (and it must have been a good one because I haven’t needed to go back since!). The ‘all or nothing’ syndrome is the one that goes: ‘If I can’t write a work of great literature, I’d better not write at all.’ Or: ‘Since I have shouted at my children this morning, I am clearly a complete failure as a mother.’ It has been genuinely life changing to recognise this kind of thought pattern for the lie that it is.

Recently, I’ve seen how ‘all or nothing thinking’ can be the bane of the environmental movement too.The evidence on environmental degradation is, frankly, scary. What can one person do in the face of melting ice caps, increasing food shortages and peak oil?

Way back in the early 1970s, the US writer and farmer Wendell Berry wrote a prescient essay entitled ‘Think Little’. In it he argues that we have got so used to everything being done on a large scale – food production, government, protest movements – that we have lost sight of the fact that ‘there is no public crisis that is not also private’. He writes passionately about the importance of anyone who is concerned about the big problems of the day to start by ‘thinking little’.

A man who is trying to live as a neighbor to his neighbors will have a lively and practical understanding of the work of peace and brotherhood, and let there be no mistake about it – he is doing that work.

When it comes to the environmental crisis, Berry is clear: if you’re worried about it, start growing vegetables.

A person who is growing a garden, if he is growing it organically, is improving a piece of the world. He is producing something to eat, which makes him somewhat independent of the grocery business, but he is also enlarging, for himself, the meaning of food and the pleasure of eating.

Berry is not saying that our action on the environment should only be about our gardens, but he believes that growing vegetables can lead to a radical shift of mindset – one that is essential if there is to be any long-term change in the way we treat the world. As we reconnect with the way the soil and the weather work to produce food, so we grow in understanding of why our wasteful economy is so wrong. I can’t do him full justice here: if you haven’t already read it, it’s a must.

Berry and my depression management techniques have combined to give me fresh hope about our garden. Much as I love it, it is hardly your ideal piece of veg-producing ground. It’s looking particularly sad at the moment.

It can look quite pretty in the summer – here’s a family gathering in 2010. It would still be easy to moan about how small it is, how there’s too much paving and about that darned shed that takes up far too much room. But this is to venture into ‘all or nothing’ territory, too – ‘If I can’t have an allotment or better still a smallholding, there’s no point in trying to grow more food.’ What rubbish! And how ungrateful!

Inspired by Berry, I have determined to ‘think little’ about producing more food this growing season. This means two main things for me: first, not to worry about what we can’t do. It is better to start slowly, with something small, than not to start at all. And second, to look out for all the nooks and crannies, the tiny, hidden places, where an extra plant could be stuffed in.

Like this primrose, somehow surviving in a drystone wall.


why pray when you can worry?

The Christian writer and doctor John White has an alarming story about the early days of his medical career. Within just a year of completing his training, he was frequently put in charge of all the night time emergency surgery in a large city hospital (wisely, he does not tell us which one). During the day, he was often given his own operating list. He goes on:

Understandably, sometimes things went wrong – seriously wrong. In the operating room, a wave of panic would sometimes rise in me as with horror I would see that the operation was getting in a deeper and deeper mess.*

White eventually went on to become a psychiatrist. You might assume that he withdrew from surgery because of a string of disasters on the operating table, but that was not the case.  In fact his patients seem to have survived despite his inexperience, thanks to a valuable lesson he learnt about thinking under pressure.

During these white-knuckle sessions in theatre, White discovered that his brain’s first reaction was to freeze. His movements became pointless and repetitive. He would look desperately at his assisting team, but all eyes just stared back at him: he was the guy in charge. All he could do at that point was to force himself to think carefully and deliberately. ‘Now take it easy,’ he would say to himself. ‘What’s my immediate aim? What should I do first?’

Slowly, with a sense of growing confidence and relief, I found my way through the difficulties, successfully completing what could have been a tragically botched operation. My mind had been freed to accept new ideas, to remember old principles and to force myself to rely on them and go ahead.

The most interesting thing for me about this story (apart from the reassuring fact that fatalities were averted) is what happened to White’s prayers when panic took over.  White describes them as becoming like ‘muttered incantations’. ‘Oh Lord, help! Lord, don’t let it go wrong! Lord, don’t let it get in a mess! Don’t let her die!’

I have never had the type of life-and-death responsibility that faces a surgeon, thank goodness, but I do recognise this kind of ‘incantation’. It is what I do when I sense life is getting out of control. I have come to see it as one of the early signs that my mental health is at risk. ‘Oh Lord, help! Oh Lord, stop me from getting so tired that I bite everyone’s head off! Oh Lord, don’t let me get depressed again!’

As White wisely points out, this is not prayer. This is not communicating with God; it is ‘expressing panic in parrot talk’. Saints through the ages have taught us that prayer leads to peace and freedom from our anxieties. Unfortunately, if we do not recognise the difference between panicky parrot talk and really communicating with a God we trust, things will actually get worse, not better. ‘Why don’t I feel any peace? Why am I even more worried now than I was an hour ago? Oh God I am such a terrible Christian!’

As part of my recovery from the mental distress that used to plague me with horrible regularity, I have discovered that sometimes before I pray I need to spend some time in careful, logical thought. Or as White puts it, sometimes before we talk to God, we have to talk to ourselves. ‘What really is the problem here? What solution do I want to see? What can I do about it? What do I need God to do about it?’

There are several situations that are causing me a bit of anxiety at the moment. Snowed in and unable to get to church this morning, it has been good to spend time thinking slowly about what needs to happen with each of them, and only then to bring them to God in prayer.  This makes my relationship with God feel much more real. I have a sense that together we will be able to work out a creative solution. Of course things may still not resolve themselves in the way I would like, but I am not panicking; my anxiety levels have dropped, and I have a genuine hope for each situation.

Finally, I couldn’t blog today without posting a snow picture. I spent two hours out walking with a camera today, but the photograph I like best was waiting for me back in the front garden.

*All quotations from John White’s book Parents in Pain. (Now out of print but available here.)

Advent blog calendar

Two years ago I blogged through December in a bid to fight the winter blues and it seems I need to do the same this year too. I know what depression feels like and I’m not there yet, but I can sense it lurking on the margins. Maybe it’s the short days or the huge uni workload or, indeed, the sense of imminent financial Armageddon across the western world – whatever, I find myself wanting to cry for no reason and stay in bed rather than do things I normally enjoy.

I had coffee with a young friend of mine the other day and she told me she thought she might have a ‘depressive mindset’. Without really thinking too hard I found myself saying that I thought a tendency to depression, if kept under control, could be a creative thing. I’m not for a minute suggesting that it is always possible to keep depression at bay but I have learned through experience that noticing symptoms early and then doing something creative in response can be very therapeutic.

So on the grounds that attack is the best form of defence, I plan to blog every day during Advent: a daily post, probably pretty short, with a picture taken on that day. Seeking out things to photograph when you are feeling down is a really good way of taking your mind off the negative and noticing the good that is around us. It’s a shame that today’s picture is so crappy, though.ImageIt’s supposed to be an illustration of why I enjoy being at my uni so much. You can sit in the library and look out over the bus and railway stations as well as the much debated Park Hill Flats and I thought it would sum up the way both universities in Sheffield make a real effort to engage with the city rather than being ivory towers. My brain is seriously stretched with literary theory these days and it’s good to be reminded that there’s a real world out there, not too far away.

Finally, a huge thank you to Jacqueline whose blog always makes me smile, and who had me positively beaming today thanks to her very sweetly bestowing on me the Jennifer Avventura Reader Appreciation Award. I’m very honoured and very heartened. So thank you again, Jacqueline – and thanks for your unfailingly cheerful blog posts!