Mental ditches and the twenty-minute rule
Two events signal the onset of winter in the northland: the end of the baseball season and the turning back of the clocks.
For Twins fans, the end of summer came with jarring suddenness last week, even though the 80-degree temperatures lingered past the home team's premature exit from the playoffs.
The clock will be turned back soon enough and boom, we'll be eating supper in the dark.
Some people accept the onset of winter with ease. They cruise through the cold months on their snowmobiles, or their skis, or in their four-wheel-drives.
The rest of us, no matter how hard we try, will at some point end up in the ditch. The mental ditch, that is.
It is easy to tell when you've gone in the mental ditch.
If you come home from town after getting milk and bananas and spend the next day worried that Emma Nelson looked at you funny in the cereal aisle, you're in a mental ditch.
If you get bad service at the store and you spend the next 36 hours dreaming of pulling the clerk's fingernails out, you're in a mental ditch.
If a former classmate doesn't return your greeting at the café and you can't get it out of your head and you wake up at two in the morning convinced that you should call him to apologize for the blow-dart incident in eighth grade, you're in a mental ditch.
Winter is a time when some people soar over the snowdrifts while the rest of us just try to stay out of the ditch.
After years of winters spent fighting my way out of the ditch, I asked a wise man I respect: What is the normal amount of time a person should be bothered by somebody who butts in line in front of you at Menard's?
How long should you be upset after a telemarketer interrupts your dinner?
How long should your face burn with shame after a so-called friend implies that your breath stinks and has for years?
I thought the wise man's answer might be vague and academic, something about how we all have different thresholds of upsettedness and that we shouldn't judge ourselves and we should just learn to accept our selves for who we are no matter how long we brood about things.
Or, he could say that you shouldn't let any of these stupid little things bother you. A healthy person wouldn't get upset at all and would realize that the preoccupied clerk was probably just hoping that her seven children were home and sober.
The unresponsive classmate was probably just deaf.
Instead, the wise man thought a bit and answered with a certainty uncharacteristic of the wise:
"Twenty minutes," he said with a shrug. "Twenty minutes should about do it."
"That's crazy!" I said. "Are you telling me that if I am stuck in traffic and some jerk pulls onto the shoulder and roars past us all and then expects somebody to let him in way up front that I shouldn't spend the next week plotting to assassinate him?"
"Yep," the wise man responded. "Twenty minutes is all you have."
Since then, I have used the 20-minute rule to measure whether I am about to drive into a mental ditch, or whether I may already be stuck there.
If my mind gets going on revenge fantasy against the big lunk who flattened me in touch football in junior high, I give it 20 minutes.
If I start worrying, despite a complete lack of evidence, that I am going to die once the wart behind my ear goes to my brain, I give the thought 20 minutes.
If, after 20 minutes, the stupid thoughts linger and torment me into the night, it is a problem.
If, after falling asleep, I awake two hours before dawn only to be hit like a ton of bricks by even more stupid thoughts, it is a bigger problem.
With a little medication and a good light box, endlessly repeating winter thought loops are no longer the problem they once were.
Nobody should spend winter days and nights tormented by life's various irritants. Endless hours of worry, guilt or anger aren't normal or necessary.
But when you get stuck in that miserable ditch in the depths of winter, the easiest way out is to call for a little help.