The first album I ever bought was “Crimson and Clover” (1969) by Tommy James and the Shondells. I remember being upset when the record got scratched. That gave new meaning to the lyric “crimson and clover, over and over.” Most of the thoughts that cause me trouble in life replay over and over like a lyric on a scratched record. The needle of my mind can get stuck in a bad groove.
As a psychologist, I spend a good part of my days helping people with their version of the broken record. Cognitive therapy is all about realizing the connection between how we think and how we feel. The idea is to catch ourselves thinking self-critical, catastrophic, fearful, or depressive thoughts and change them into more adaptive thoughts. Many people, though, struggle to come up with better thoughts.
A few years ago, coming out of a down period spurred by trying to help people in a particularly tragic situation, I decided to give in to my lifelong love of quotations. Four four years I perused tens of thousands of quotations online, looking for the ones that lit up a new circuit in my brain and made me want to read them over and over. I wrote brief reflective essays on each quote I deemed a “keeper.”
What I didn’t realize until I was well into the project was that I was creating an inner pantheon of wise advisers. Why try to come up with my own healthier thoughts in every situation when I can have Plato, Emerson, Mother Teresa, Rainer Maria Rilke and many others available as personal consultants? Why struggle out of a cognitive rut myself when the preserved words of so many wise women and men can help hoist me out?
Now when self-criticism shows up, Buddha is there to remind me that “You, as much as anyone in the entire universe, are deserving of your love and compassion.” When I doubt my choice to spend half of my work time on writing projects, I hear Anthony Rapp’s counsel: “There is only one of you in all of time. Fearlessly be yourself.” When I wonder if I really need to meditate daily, Helen Tworkov whispers to me: “If the mind can get still enough, something sacred will be revealed.” When I feel the familiar tug of materialism, the 2500-hundred-year-old words of Diogenes help me regain my spiritual footing: “Happiness is not what you have, but who you are.”
Toward the end of the four years, I spent a few days writing an appendix with a brief biography of each of the hundreds of people whose words I wrote about in The Inconceivable Surprise of Living: Sustaining Wisdom for Spiritual People Trying to Be Human. I noticed as I reviewed the lives of my inner advisors that I was filling up with sadness. Most of these people who have become like friends to me have been dead for scores, hundreds, or thousands of years! Their words, however, come to us across the years in the only form of time travel yet known.