There is a place in my brain where I ping back and forth between the voice of The Catastrophizer and the voice of The Eternal Optimist. Sometimes I go there wittingly and sometimes it feels like I just wake up there. The volley between these two voices can be rapid fire, or sometimes one or the other filibusters for days on end. And sometimes they are quiet and other voices emerge.
Here are the cast of characters that have taken up residence in my brain. There in the folds of the grey matter and the white matter they sit around an old, wooden farm table, talking, sometimes shouting, sometimes (some rare times) quiet.
The Eternal Optimist eats a steady diet of pink bubble gum and cotton candy. She relishes in magical thinking. Her mantra is: Wishes do come true. People often confuse her with her cousin Pollyanna. They share traits, of course, but The Eternal Optimist is not entirely vapid. She spent time as a child listening to the stories of her Grandmother, Hope, and that wisdom has informed her dreams. Sometimes she is right. The wish does come true. When this happens it fuels her fire. She blows pink bubble gum bubbles as big as her face and dances around the room filled with unencumbered, unabashed joy. When the wishes don’t come true, as they often don’t, she grows quiet for a time and stops blowing bubbles.
This is The Catastrophizer’s favorite moment to speak up…right when a wish or a fantasy has been blown up or crushed into a fine dust. The Catastrophizer is thin and pinched. Her stories all come to a dead-end in the same place: You will end up alone and unloved, homeless on the side of the road with old wrappers and cigarette butts brushing up against your ankles. She can take something as simple as missing the ferry and turn it into a funeral.
Then there is The Pragmatist. She is so boring I sometimes dream of pushing her off a cliff. She always has a checklist: Run eight miles, fold the laundry, empty the trash, zero the inbox, do the dishes, pay the bill, and then between 7 and 8pm find joy. She is a snooze at a dinner party, a killjoy on a hike, but she is a star at the office. She has 17 “Employee of the Month” stickers on her bulletin board. She gets shit done. Efficiently, effectively, and with an eye towards excellence.
And finally there is Intuition. She is larger than the rest, but entirely understated. She drinks bone broth from wood-fired mugs and eats artichoke hearts with a silver fork. She lives in the house of the heart, but visits the brain when necessary to translate heart speak into mind speak. Intuition never shouts to be heard, so her quiet but steady voice is often lost in the cacophony.
These characters all have a part to play. None are evil, though some are certainly given more airtime than they deserve.
The Catastrophizer is sometimes (rarely…but sometimes) right. Sometimes catastrophes really do happen. This is a truth worth remembering, lest we attach too fervently to the goodies in life. But more often than not, the Catastrophizer engages in the unhelpful act of inflating inconveniences into tragedies or of spinning stories based on nothing into unimaginable nightmares.
The Eternal Optimist feels validated by Positive Psychology. Put out the good vibes and receive them in return. And this is true—up to a point. A positive orientation towards the world can have real life positive implications. But sometimes despite all the good thoughts, good intentions, good vibes, and good juju…shit just happens, and while good hearted, The Eternal Optimist doesn’t have the grit or resilience to withstand this reality.
The Pragmatist, boring and zipped up though she may be, in some ways holds the key to freedom where it matters. She knows that getting the mundane done makes space for creativity. She just sometimes has a hard time remembering that “the stuff” is never fully done, and that at times you should burn the to do list and seek joy now (even though the Thai take-out is molding in the fridge and the shower drain is full of hair).
Intuition is a goddess. The only hard thing about Intuition is discerning when she is speaking or when it is another voice talking over her. She is patient, however, because she knows there is space for all of it. She knows that the heart, while physically finite, has a infinite capacity for expansion. That generosity is the mother of abundance, and that compassion to self and to others is at the heart of everything good. That the dreams of The Eternal Optimist and the fears of The Catastrophizer and the needs of The Pragmatist all have their place in the order of things. That eventually each will grow exhausted, and that she will speak a clear line of wisdom that cannot be ignored for long.
When I was little, my family ate dinner around a big wooden farm table. The centerpiece of the table was a fairly ghastly arrangement of Paper Mache vegetables. I think of that arrangement--especially the carrot--with incredible fondness. As a child, at some point, I decided that the carrot was the “talking carrot”—a tool to be used when family discussions got heated and we needed a discernable way to moderate things. The rule was simple: If you had the carrot in hand, you could talk. If you didn’t, then you couldn’t.
I’d like to choose how long each member of my internal round table gets to hang onto the talking carrot. To be grateful for the perspective that The Catastrophizer, The Eternal Optimist, and The Pragmatist lend, but to not let them yammer on for days without pause. To ensure that there is enough quiet that I don’t miss the important things Intuition has to say.
A yoga instructor at an Ashram explained the Hindu gods to me in this way: Our human brains cannot comprehend capital g-God (or Brahman). But we can comprehend and connect to aspects of God—especially so when they are given forms and features that we can relate too—like the power of Shiva—the destroyer, or the luxury of Lakshmi—goddess of wealth, fortune, and prosperity. This explanation has stayed with me, and in part gave birth to this idea of creating characters out of the thought patterns in my heart and mind, as a way to better understand, connect, and react.
The characters at my internal round table have been there for decades. It’s only in the last few weeks that I decided to give each a name and features. Shortly after I’d started thinking this way, one of my dearest friends asked during a phone conversation, “Who am I talking to today?” When I asked what he meant, he rattled off descriptions that were so similar to my freshly minted, and up until that point un-spoken, characters, that it was truly eerie. Like he had somehow crept into my brain without me knowing it. Or perhaps, what is more true is this: we are so close to our own reality that it is hard to see it clearly, and our closest friends are often the hall of mirrors reflecting our truth back on us. In any case, internal clarity and external validation coincided in such a way this month that it seemed like this new way of thinking was somehow pre-ordained, important, and arriving just in time. That as a story telling creature who has always gravitated towards the truth in poetry more than towards the truth in science, I will be able, through these characters, to find my way more aptly towards mindful awareness.