At the risk of offending any Shepherds, I am going to take the concept of wool-gathering a bit out of context because, well, I am determined to use the idea to clarify the dangers of a lackadaisical mind. The concept of mental “woolgathering” typically refers to a mind given to daydreaming or idle/fanciful thinking. Nothing ultimately wrong with that if done on occasion and when you aren’t supposed to be focused on learning something important or listening attentively to someone you care about. But here’s where I tend to get myself into trouble with it: the gathering part. You see, our minds are active, having thousands of thoughts every few seconds. And as innocent as most of those may seem, there are thoughts that repeat, that we “gather”, that can give us brain damage.
“Woolgathering” is derived from the activity of people who would scour bushes and fences, collecting the wool the sheep left behind after rubbing against or getting snagged on them. I imagine they would then take it to someone who would use it to make blankets or clothing. The more wool you accumulate, the bigger the blanket you could make.
I feel like this is a perfect metaphor for what happens in my mind if I am not mindful about what I am allowing to enter it. No thoughts are harmless, especially if they are repeated and have to do with worry, fear, doubts about my self-worth or whether I am “enough” (you fill in the blank for what you wonder if you are enough of).
When I am not intentional about what I think (whatever is good, whatever is lovely, whatever is kind, pure, positive, etc.), if I allow thoughts that are untrue or negative about me or others, and dwell on them or ruminate on them, I am “gathering wool.” Each additional thought adds more wool to a blanket of guilt, shame, pessimism, cynicism, disdain, arrogance, judgementalism. It’s a blanket that covers and smothers.
It’s pretty challenging to never have a thought that shouldn’t be there; a thought that can accumulate and destroy us over time. Our best hope, maybe, is that when we come across a nasty piece of wool, to pick it up, acknowledge it for what it is, open our hand, and let it blow away. What we think about repetitively becomes our reality. It can define who we are, how we act and even cause physical harm to our bodies.
We were created to choose what we allow ourselves to think about — or at least dwell on. It takes lots of intentional practice to create a new default setting in our brain. One where our first thoughts are the thoughts of God: wise, discerning, compassionate, selfless, tender, loving. But our nature is “transformed by the renewing of our minds” (Romans 12:2).
So pay attention to what wool you have been gathering.
Maybe you need to pull that loose strand at the end of some pretty ugly blankets you have been knitting for years. Let each one unravel and free you from the weight. Keep pulling until it disappears. Refuse to gather any more wool to add to it or start over.
Guard your mind. Let the thoughts that do not come from God blow away. Eventually, you will learn to not pick them up at all. Eventually you will learn to only gather the good stuff. Remember, “as a man thinketh in his heart, so he is.” (Proverbs 23:7)