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The white bear and ironic process theory, or why you can't stop thinking about it.

large stuffed bear sitting on sidewalk
Photo © Julie R. Neidlinger. All rights reserved.

"Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute," Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote.

What we do not want to think about, what we most want to not do, becomes an object to us. In order to know if we are successful at controlling that addiction, that obsession, that nagging doubt, we have to monitor it by...thinking about it.

To defeat the object we keep it front and center, and it defeats us.

It's thinking about thinking.

Thinking purposefully about not thinking about a white bear means that we are, in some sense, thinking about a white bear.

The apostle Paul was no stranger to it. "I don't understand what I do! What I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do," we read in Romans 7:15-20. "I want to do what is good but I cannot carry it out. All the good I want to do I don't do. But the evil I hate—this is what I keep doing."

Somewhere, in or around the foggy start of the pandemic, a commenter on an old blog post of mine asked for tips for Christian bloggers. I was as interested in what my response would be as the commenter, because I really didn't know.

Mostly, after all the years of writing but especially in the current moment, I suggested that we should stop communicating only from places of success.

"It would probably be okay if we stopped perpetuating the idea that if we only disciplined ourselves more in the right way and had the right thinking, we would not remain in a state of some brokenness but instead would arrive at perfect health, emotional stability, and financial victory," I said.

If you squeeze a balloon, it bulges out somewhere else.

If you try not to think about something, it's all you think about.

If you tell yourself you cannot ever have something, that's the only thing you want.

If you tell yourself to stop doing something, it's the only thing you want to do.

I guess our interest and mind have to truly find rest in a different focus to the point that we forget or become apathetic about what had us fixated.

In Romans 7:21-25, Paul points out the law that is at work. "Even though I want to do good, evil is right here with me. In my heart I want to do what is of God, but there is a war in my mind that makes me a prisoner of the law of sin in me. I am wretched! Who will rescue me?"

Thankfully, he doesn't stop there.

"Thanks to God who saved me through Jesus Christ! In my mind I am a slave to God's law, but in my nature a slave to the law of sin."

On my many down days, the war between wanting to do good but failing at every turn is incredibly brutal. I've caught myself locked in a 1000-yard stare at nothing, looking out the backyard window and time flying by with little more than a sense of falling into a black hole to show for it when I come around.

My solution is to come back around to focus on eternity, and not the white bear reminding me that yet again today had big failures. On good days, that renewed focus on God takes up more space than me fretting about diet failures, exercise failures, spiritual failures, professional failures—and I accomplish more that's in line with what I want in those areas.

But there are a lot of days that aren't good days, if I'm honest, and perhaps that's what drives me to think about eternity so hard for the next round.


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