Taylor: Controlling our thoughts

Thoughts lead to words which lead to life-long beliefs and prejudices.

The minds of small boys almost inevitably find humour in natural bodily functions. Farting, pooping, belching, pissing—all seem irresistibly hilarious.

When I was eight or nine, I remember, I attended a school for expatriate children in northern India. We boys lived in dormitories. About 30 slept in a large room, supervised by a matron. In those close quarters, childish humour spread like an epidemic.

Soon almost any casual comment took on “dirty” overtones.

The matron lectured us one evening about what she considered our bad habits. She offered an incentive for change—any boy who could go a whole week without thinking any dirty thoughts would get a treat. Ice cream. After everyone else had gone to bed.

Note, she challenged us not to have any “dirty thoughts.” Not just dirty words. In modern psychological parlance, she expected us to repress certain thoughts.

Repression should have resulted in lifelong damage. It didn’t. At least, I don’t think it did. Although my wife does sometimes wonder about my sense of humour….

I remember being furious with one friend, who twisted an innocent comment of mine into a sexual innuendo. “Now you’ve made me miss ice cream!” I raged.

No one in that dormitory got ice cream the first week. Or the second week. We couldn’t cheat. If any boy falsely claimed mental purity for the week, a chorus of other boys would instantly denounce him.

But after a few weeks, one or two could claim the prize. Then half a dozen. Then most of the dormitory. I still remember how good it felt to be led downstairs to the darkened dining room, after all the other lights were out, to sit around a table and slurp on delicious ice cream.

Amazingly, the matron’s tactic had worked.

Words, thoughts, and actions are all connected. You can’t say a racist word without having first having had a racist thought. You can’t commit a violent act without first having had a violent thought. That seems obvious.

What’s perhaps less obvious is that what you say and do feeds back into your thought patterns. If you know you are not going to express your emotions physically—by your choice, not by external restrictions—there’s not much point in wallowing in violent fantasies, is there? If you have to make an extra effort to translate harsh thoughts into socially acceptable language, you learn not to think those thoughts in the first place.

We humans are amazing creatures. We have minds. Our minds are, in many ways, indistinguishable from what we are. And yet we can tell our minds what to think. One part of us can say to itself, “That’s an unacceptable thought.”

Our minds can steer our minds.

It’s almost as though each of us had two selves. There’s the primitive self, the neural pathways that react unthinkingly, like a reptile. And there’s a transcendent self, that can observe our own reactions, as if from a distance, and apply some discretion.

I wonder if that’s almost every human society has believed there must be a God, somewhere out there, beyond ourselves.