Michelle today was peering at her coffee. “Tastes funny,” she said. It wasn’t right. We’d been out this morning on an errand, and got a coffee from a chain place on the way home, a routine thing, and the coffee from this chain was usually pretty good. And the coffee I got today was up to the usual standard.
But Michelle was suspicious. From her first sip, she knew something wasn’t right. She frowned. She wondered if the straw was the problem, and tried a sip without it. It was a bit better.
I tried it, and I could more or less see her point, but mostly it just seemed weak and no longer all that hot. It seemed a bit limp.
Michelle works with blood for a living. She’s a medical laboratory scientist. When you have blood drawn for a test, chances are someone like Michelle is going to be the one in charge of finding out what’s up with your red and white cells. She’s been in this line of work more than 25 years. Her bosses made a big deal about this recently, and recognised her amazing service to the company. It was actually touching.
But the upshot is this: Michelle has an analytical mind. When she’s wondering why her coffee tastes a bit funny, she’s really thinking about it. She’s giving it the skunk-eye, but she’s also wondering if the milk was a bit out of date, or if the machine that made the coffee wasn’t quite right, or if the barista had a problem. She’s suspicious. She’s sitting there with her coffee in her hand, staring hard at it, as if she were one of the laser-focused insanely expensive analysis machines she works with. And you could also see that at no point was she going to take one last sip and say, now wait a minute. This is actually fine after all. I was wrong. This is great coffee. That sort of change was never likely. The suspicion had eaten its way in. That coffee could never redeem its sorry self. She eventually went and made a much better coffee.
But listening to her talk about her view of that coffee, I was really struck by how she sounded just like I sound to myself when I’m interrogating my mood, my mental state, when I’m suspicious of myself. “Hmm,” I’ll think, “just noticed I’m not doing that well today, hmm.” Like, for example, yesterday (today, too, only today I’m no longer suspicious while yesterday I was). I had been doing really well, but suddenly something was wrong, mind-wise. It was like there’s a faint whiff of a smell coming from somewhere, and it’s really bothering you, and nobody else notices it. It’s very faint, but also plain as day. It smells like depression, but that doesn’t make any sense, you tell yourself, walking around, sniffing here and sniffing there, trying to find the source of the smell. It doesn’t make any sense because everything’s been going well. Even the weight is going reasonably sort-of okay. So what could it be?
You’re peering with your mind at your own mind, as if in a mirror, in fairly poor light, in a steamed up bathroom after you’ve had a shower, and you’re standing there staring at your working mind, knowing something in there is out of whack today. It doesn’t feel right. It’s as if you have a weird pain in your left leg that every doctor has tried to find, and you’ve had scans and physiotherapists have given you all kinds of rubs and massages and exercises, but that weird pain is still there and sometimes it even makes you limp a bit, and people roll their eyes, oh God, there goes Steve and his leg again. People, I imagine, can get fatigue from hearing about the adventures of your wacky and whacked-out mind. Mind-fatigue.
And yet, it continues to feel weird. Something is wrong, you don’t know what or why, and it’s causing you distress. All the many books you’ve read on neuroscience (some of them, with details of where in the rats’ brains they put the electrodes, are really icky), consciousness theory, therapy, and all the rest, suggest that maybe it’s okay to just, like the Beatles song, Let it Be. Sure something is a bit wrong. But only a bit. It’s not a five-alarm fire. It’s not the destruction (“oh, the humanity!”) of the Hindenburg). You’re somewhat glum. As an experience you’d give it maybe two melancholy stars, two fairly droopy grey stars.
And you’d get some coffee, listen to some mellow jazz, and read a good book. There are worse ways to be, and you should know.