February 24, 2020

Thinking About Thinking

I have these awkward moments in my office when someone will walk in and see me doing absolutely nothing. I’m not looking at a computer screen or texting or reading a paper or making deals on the phone. I’m just sitting there — thinking.

I think all the time. The world is so chaotic, our community is so diverse and complicated, I can’t imagine how I would do my job without these bouts of deep reflection.

The problem is, thinking is getting harder and harder to do. My Twitter feed, for example, keeps getting in the way. If it’s on, I’m constantly distracted. If it’s off, I’m stressed that I’ll be missing something.

Even worse, I’m now expected to contribute to this digital flow of interruptions. I’m expected to send out tweets all day long.

This doesn’t come naturally to me. I guess you pick up certain habits when you write a weekly column for 12 years. I use the week to think about the column, consider different ideas, research, craft, edit, publish and then start over again for the next week. This is a far cry from blasting a tweet on a minute’s notice.

If the soul of the Twitter world is reaction, the soul of a weekly paper is reflection. In a sense, the paper is a reminder of the value of thinking.

Thinking is an art, and it’s worth thinking about it. Our thoughts shape our actions. Our thoughts have the power to temper our most destructive emotions. When we just react, we forego the power of thought.

We live in a world that wants us to react, rather than think. This is a form of mind control. Advertisers have always understood this.  

We live in a world that wants us to react, rather than think. This is a form of mind control. Advertisers have always understood this. The seducer doesn’t want you to think, evaluate, reflect. He wants to trigger a reaction, an impulse. First an impulse to like and then an impulse to buy.

The social media revolution has turned everyone into an advertiser. Every tweet, every image, every post is an attempt to trigger a reaction. This is the ideal environment to obliterate deep thought.

My favorite speakers are those who make me think and make me ask questions. The problem is there’s no money in questions. The money is in the answers. All those sharp pundits on CNN, MSNBC and Fox would never be there if they weren’t bursting with answers. Producers don’t look for reflective thinkers; they look for clever speakers with quick answers.

If you’re looking for deep thought on television, you’ll have to watch old episodes of “Firing Line” with William F. Buckley Jr. I’m addicted to these shows. Because when intelligent opinions clash, the viewer is forced to think through the issues. It’s a mental exercise. It asks us to slow down and think.

Is there anything in today’s world that asks us to slow down and think?

In the Jewish tradition, of course, there is Shabbat, which Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel calls “a cathedral in time.”

“He who wants to enter the holiness of the day must first lay down the profanity of clattering commerce, of being yoked to toil,” Heschel writes in “The Sabbath.” “He must go away from the screech of dissonant days, from the nervousness and fury of acquisitiveness and the betrayal in embezzling his own life.”

When we find the space to think, we can reflect on what kind of thoughts will enrich our lives.

Shabbat symbolizes the creation of the space we need to slow down and reflect. If we don’t go out of our way to create that space, the fury of the digital world will take over. Our impulses will guide us.

When we find the space to think, we can reflect on what kind of thoughts will enrich our lives. We will be mindful of what thoughts bring us down and what thoughts uplift us; what thoughts paralyze us and what thoughts move us forward. We will be more likely to think through the consequences of our words and actions.

Creating “Shabbat moments” of quiet reflection during our hectic days can help keep us balanced. These little timeouts for deep thought can nourish our souls. 

And yet, we seem to be intimidated by silence. We walk the streets wearing our earphones, listening to music; we drive around listening to podcasts; we live our lives glued to noisy screens.

Silence is one of the ingredients for deep thought, but it’s not the only one. I do some of my best thinking walking around the Jewish Journal’s noisy and fascinating neighborhood of Koreatown. I’m not sure why that helps me think.

But now that I think of it, maybe it’s because I’m looking at humanity rather than just sitting alone in my office.

Follow David Suissa on Twitter: @suissatweets