Friday, May 1, 2015

Reading into life: Thinking as a worthy pursuit

Oftentimes I catch my oldest son, Stephen, staring off into space or romping around the house muttering to himself. "What'cha doing, Steve?" I'll ask, already knowing his answer: "I'm just thinking." My middle son, Rockam, eventually does everything his big brother does. I was still surprised when he recently shot back that same line to me when I asked him whether he felt alright. He had appeared to be moping on the couch for half an hour.

My thoughtful sons got me thinking. Is "just thinking" a valid way to while away twenty minutes or even an entire afternoon?

I don't read fiction very often. It's not because I think it's inferior to nonfiction, but because fiction has a tendency to suck me in so I need to finish the book in one big marathon, and then I'm a bit of a zombie for a couple of days after, reliving and rewriting the story in my mind. Every so often I forget this unfortunate result... Over spring break I decided to find out what was inside the beautiful cover of Pulitzer-winning author Marilynne Robinson's Lila. Inside, I found a novel told in a hybrid of third and first person from the perspective of a resourceful yet socially isolated woman. Lila grows up under the care and affection of Doll, who stole her off the porch of an abusive home and raised her as a vagrant barely scraping by during the Dust Bowl and Great Depression.

The book's strength is in Robinson's psychological insights into the effects of extreme poverty and abuse. But I think what I liked best about the title character is her habit of spending hours simply, deliberately thinking. Lila considered herself ignorant, but the book reveals her as an untapped intellectual with too little cultivating too late. Despite having had only one year of formal schooling, Lila made a habit of thinking about things. She ponders theological questions like whether she could wash off her baptism and the eternal fate of her only friend and mother-figure, who had once cut a man and had never been baptized herself. This is probably also why the gentle, supernaturally virtuous preacher John Ames falls in love with and marries her, despite having made a vow of loyalty to the memory of his first wife and being nearly double Lila's age. A little icky, but if they made the book into a movie, I'm sure the age gap would disappear.

But back to my musing. After Lila's spontaneous marriage removed the necessity of scraping by for the basic necessities of life, she had plenty of time on her hands to think. Sometimes she'd recall her past, fretting about the eternal fate of those who were good to her. Other times she'd come up with questions for the learned preacher. Sometimes she'd weave passages from scripture into her own observations from life. Sometimes she'd just think up a list of things that she planned to think about more deeply in the future, intent on coming to kind of decision or belief.

The bulk of the book was Lila thinking. And it got me thinking, what would life be like if we carved out time, and even scheduled in sessions for thinking about something, for example: things that trouble us theologically or our approach to a difficult relationship. Would those times result in more meaningful doing? I'm an introvert and already spend most of my days in my head. But those thoughts are often the restless, circular, fragmented variety. Rarely do I start a thought and see it through to its sound conclusion. Is there a more mindful approach to, well, being in my mind?

I don't have answers, but it's something I've been chewing on lately. I'd love to hear your thoughts :)

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