How do you solve an overthinking problem? Try thinking less

There was a time when one office co-worker or member of the lunch bunch was the go-to person for questions like, “Who was Lincoln’s first vice-president?” or “What year did ‘Jeopardy’ premier?”

I remember that time well because I was that one turned to to instantly produce “Hannibal Hamlin” or “1964.” Then came Google on I-pads and my principal role in the group was obsolete.

Brian Arbenz reading at a literary event in 2015.

As with all who find themselves displaced by technology, I had to find new skills to, in this case keep my sense of validation, rather than employablity.

For a while, that was tough! Gradually, though, I learned that I can have a purpose in the group by – this is so simple it is embarrassing – just being a pleasant person. I’d put that: by just being me, but the problem was, “me” had equaled “knowledge” for as far back as I could recall. Being the brain was a great gig for so long that I complacently stuck with it, until my support system was yanked away, forcing me to access the many parts of myself I had been ignoring.  So, thank you, Google!

That’s the positive angle on the new, less cerebral, more personable me. There also have been unhappy developments which have influenced this change.

Months after Robin Williams’ stunning death in 2014, his loved ones laid out how he simply could not control the genius currents constantly running his mind, pushing him always to observe, create comedy and dazzle, a three-step process that had long been as natural, even automatic to him as breathing.

His stuck-on mind was so fast, that being humorous on the spot became a command more so than a talent. He began hallucinating, then experiencing dementia through a condition called Lewy Body Disorder, so named from a protein called alpha-synuclein abnormally deposited in the brain in configurations known as Lewy bodies.

No, I have never had that, or experienced anything like Robin Williams’ reported symptoms.

Nor has my mind reached the level of dysfunction endured by Phil Ochs, an outspoken folk singer in the early 1960s. He was my kind of person: left wing, esoteric and fearless.

The son of an army doctor in World War II, Phil Ochs’ genius produced biting satire which attacked shortcomings he saw among progressives, as well as excoriating capitalism and racism.

Colorful, handsome and daring, Ochs had high standards for his art and for left activism. He occasionally argued with members of his own audiences over pronouncements they shouted.

Yes, I can identify with Phil Ochs, primarily because his depth of understanding was a burden. In a society of snappy phrases and sound bites, getting elaborate messages out through pop culture eventually is futile, I believe.

I figure that may have been one of the factors in his losing his mind in the 1970s, even becoming dissociative from his own identity.

His changes seemed innocent at first. His music’s ardent leftist tone softened as Ochs did songs of centrist Americana and he became longing for martyred brothers John and Robert Kennedy.  The changes then kicked into rapid gear. After becoming homeless, Ochs was diagnosed as genuinely perceiving that he was someone else – a self-invented persona Ochs gave the name John Butler Train (after JFK and William Butler Yeats). And he believed he, as Train, had killed the great folk figure Phil Ochs.

He eventually regained his identity and seemed clear headed and contented if apathetic while living with relatives on Long Island, N.Y.

He did child care for nephews and nieces, played cards and did little else, acting blasé about his musical achievements and the political struggles wrapped up in them. Internally, however, Phil Ochs was not so sedate. He committed suicide in 1976.

Again, my strains in life have not been as great as what Ochs faced, but had I achieved some national stature, who knows?

I’ve gone through some similar outlook adjustments. I took on the world in my late teens and early 20s, often championing leftist causes in my writings in mainstream and my college media, as well as letters to the editor in newspapers and over Marxist nations’ shortwave radio stations (shortwave was then essential in much of the world, but in the 1970s and ‘80s followed by only five percent of Americans, generally introverts and the NSA’s unit which created dossiers by monitoring letters like mine).

Suddenly feeling worn down by the absence of results in the me-generation society around me and put off by the sectarian splits on the world’s left, I started seeking social democratic change. I became more mellow and less strident, much in the same manner as Phil Ochs had, and started feeling more affinity with the society’s better angels. I even gave a tip of the hat to John and Bobby Kennedy.

I saw great progress possible via better social policies like family planning, gun controls, mass transit and restorative justice.

My path has resembled Phil Ochs only to a limited extent, but considering his end, the similarities have been enough to give me pause.

If there is one similar thread in what I have chronically experienced and the derailments of Williams’ and Ochs’ lives, it is overthinking. I am constantly aware — hyperaware of meanings to be defined from events, encounters and statements, even unscripted ones.boy on the bus

“You’re too much of an empath,” one acquaintance told me after I described how a stranger’s momentary frustration that morning over one of life’s rough spots was sticking with me all day.

Yes, I have trouble letting simple events I observe remain simple; I must fight the ingrained habit of referencing everything to the realm of complex ideas, concepts and polemics.

While sauntering along an apartment walkway to visit a friend in what happened to be the year 2001 I was greeted unexpectedly by a pleasant chatty little girl on a trike. She looked a little like the character Josephine Floyd, who speaks to her father in a picturephone call in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Most people would be content to note the nominal resemblance and move on. My instincts for drawing parallels wouldn’t nearly be sated with that.

I instantly decided to write a column for the monthly peace and justice newspaper I edited telling how the encounter with this charming child crystalized in my mind the differences between the future year envisioned by Arthur C. Clark and Stanley Kubrick and the real 2001.

That actual year was about whether little children would get health care, a home and eventually a job beyond Taco Bell, not whether life on a space station would beckon their fathers, who in the real 2001 may be known to the Josephine Floyds of the nation more for their signatures on child support checks.

That column was never written, a sign that my red hot penchant for epiphanies was beginning to cool.

My mind for spotting parallels creates memes with messages.

Then came social media, which reconnected me with elementary school chums with whom I’d had almost no contact for decades. That opened my eyes to something else that might be an imbalance in my mind – it turns out I have precise memory skills that are astonishing, maybe even spooky to some.

“You mean everyone can’t do that?” I asked a 6th grade classmate from 40-plus years earlier when he was flabbergasted at how I, from memory, tagged everyone in his copy of the class picture – in two minutes. No, that is not a normal skill, I learned.

Though neither he nor any of the other schoolmates I checked in with after joining Facebook thought it troubling that I could, say, remember particular questions they had asked our teachers during lessons on adjectives and adverbs or South American geography, I became a little self-conscious.

Was this newfound ability a gift, or was it creepy? After all, some of these folks about whom I could remember such details were people I had never actually talked to back in school.

More to the point of my present agenda, would it be an obstacle to improving my social contacts – just another reminder that I have always been different?

When asked by an innocently smiling person from way back, “How do you remember all this?” I, perhaps out of a sudden awareness that this could indeed be a problem, or just being lightheartedly self-effacing, told her, “I’m forgetful impaired.”

Truth is, my bigger situation is hyperawareness. And as a method of treatment, I am experimenting with being less precise on arcane data. In conversations, I’m saying, “that was more than 30 years ago,” instead of my traditional way of citing of the exact number when that number is not essential to the topic.

I’m asking myself, how much should I hold onto empathy over some complete stranger missing a bus this morning, or a driver pulling away not realizing their soft drink had been placed on their car roof.

Or a telephone customer to whom I gave the wrong serial number on a model railroad set sold at the store where I at age 18 worked my first job, forcing her and her husband to drive across town on a snowy night in pursuit of a coveted product it turned out we did not have. Yes, self-forgiveness is another issue involved in my being “forgetful impaired,” perhaps better described as an inability to let go.

I’m also using paraphrases more when they will do instead of exact quotes in recounting statements by public figures, or a judge’s ruling on a water rate hike, or my 2nd grade teacher when she taught us what homonyms were in 1966 – uh, make that more than 50 years ago.

Brian Arbenz, a self-published of author and independent journalist, lives in Louisiville, whose residents may notice he seems less deep in thought these days.