This question isn't a joke and I don't mean it metaphorically or as an indirect way of implying something else. I mean it literally. What do people think about?
A couple of months ago, I was diagnosed with a cracked tooth just before I was going to travel to Paris, and the specialist I saw said I absolutely had to do something about it before I could go. If I didn't, there was a danger the pressure changes of air travel would exacerbate the crack and cause terrible pain. I imagined landing in a European city in intense dental pain and immediately decided to take his advice.
He recommended a root canal. I'd had one before, and it was pretty bad, but he assured me that there would be no pain. They'd do whatever they had to do to make sure my mouth was numb enough and it would be fine.
I was skeptical. I have this thing where novocaine or lidocaine or whatever it is they use these days is ineffective on me without some other drug, like nitrous oxide. I've always been this way. Shot after shot after shot, it never really works. My regular dentist gives me nitrous -- since he treats a lot of kids he always calls it "the magic nose" -- and that works amazingly. As we've discussed, for me nitrous mostly changes a frightening and painful experience into a fun opportunity to take legal drugs.
The specialist didn't use nitrous, though. I trusted him about the pain, but still: it was just going to be me with the needles and the drill and the whole unpleasant experience.
I had like a week in between arranging the appointment and the actual event, and in the meantime I tried not to think about it. When I did think about it, I kind of freaked out. The whole mechanism of a root canal -- well, look, I'm not even going to into it, because if you're at all like me even the description of it is so disturbing, so much the sort of thing that would cause you pain, so much the kind of thing that seems like it's damaging you rather than helping you, you don't even want to think about it.
As in the nature of things, the more I tried not to think about it, the more I thought about it, and the more I thought about it the worse I felt. Being by nature and by training an overly reflective person, I started to think about why I couldn't put it out of my mind, which got me thinking about what other things I think about on a daily basis and why I couldn't substitute some of those things in for thinking about the root canal.
And the more I pondered that the more weirded out I got. What do I think about? Once you bracket the obvious planning and internal complaining, what is there? I was appalled to notice that while happy thoughts about the past could barely hold my attention for a nanosecond, unhappy thoughts about the past could stay festering in my brain over long and recurring moments.
Once when I was in ninth grade, I was hanging around some kids I thought were cool including a boy I thought was cute, and they were being funny, and I was laughing. And that boy turned to me and said, "What is it with you anyway? You'll laugh at anything."
How is it memories like that can really catch hold and stick with you, while nice thoughts about people who love you just drift away like the seeds of a Cottonwood tree?
I don't if everyone is like this, but I found some of my happiest and most absorbed moments, moments when I could successfully not think about the root canal, were spent musing about possible future projects -- not, like, realistic projects like finishing my book manuscript or learning to make spanakopita, but just-beyond-realistic projects, like getting into bodybuilding or writing a successful comedy-drama screenplay.
I'm usually a very reality-based person. WTF?
Eventually I started casting around for other things to fill my mind, to block out thoughts of the root canal. And that's when I started wondering: what do other people think about? I see them sitting quietly on the subway, or standing around before exercise class, and their expressions look pretty placid. Are they obsessing about the past? Are they daydreaming about the future? What else is there?
In the end, I thought about that root canal all week all the time, and I fretted about it and worried about it, and finally the day came, and though the doctor was as good as his word in terms of dental numbness, it's also the case that I had to have shot after shot after shot of novocaine, and after each one they had to test my tooth with a super cold thing that made me jump out of the chair, and there were complexities which meant they coudn't finish it in one three hour appointment so I had to come back.
But it all ended up fine and my teeth feel great. So all that suckiness and difficulty? I try not to think about it.