Monday, May 30, 2005

The background work of my brain

D. and I were at a church party this evening that was in part about honoring the folks who spearheaded our parish’s recent capital campaign (and Lord save me from ever having to do that job). One of the honorees is a woman in her 60s who serves on the vestry with me and who was one of D.’s and my sponsors at our Holy Union blessing. In thanking everyone for the applause she’d just received, she said that it had been difficult work (and that’s an understatement—this fundraising campaign brought out some real ugliness in the parish, unfortunately) but that she only took on projects that she thought would bring her closer to God, and that this campaign had done so at every turn.

I’ve heard this woman make such statements before, but it really struck me this time. I have to confess (as I did to D. on the way home from the party) that I rarely think about what will bring me closer to God when deciding what projects to undertake, what decisions to make, etc. And here she and I are, both serving on the vestry, and while I get fed up with it at every turn, it’s bringing her closer to God.

D. repeated an observation that she’s made more than once, that our brains are always engaged in background tasks; if we ask ourselves a particular question at least once every day, the brain starts to gather information on that question automatically throughout each day. This woman from my parish clearly asks herself at least once a day how that day’s work could bring her closer to God; and, big surprise, she apparently finds answers to this question regularly.

In response to D.’s observation, I thought for a moment about what question I ask myself at least once a day, what my brain’s background work is. And here’s what I came up with: professional competence. Yes, several times a day, I assess my own and others’ professional competence as it has been or might be revealed in interactions, memos, expressed ideas, casual or formal conversation, etc. Gee, no wonder I feel competitive with other people; no wonder I’m often dismayed by others’ perceived incompetence or fretting about my own potential incompetence; no wonder I vacillate between smugness and insecurity. Ick, ick, blech.

It was kind of a shock to realize this about myself and to think about what it means for my life that this is what my brain is chugging away at in the background all the time. I don’t think it makes me a bad person, but I bet it doesn’t make me the happiest person I could be. I’m going to try to be aware of this background work and to spend some time thinking about what I’d like this background work to be instead. What daily question could my brain be asking instead that would bring me more peace than the ongoing assessment of professional competence?