Are you an Above the Line or Below the Line Thinker?

Aug 28, 2023

Do you have an “I’ll get to this eventually” stack in your office?

Mine’s in my home office / work-out room. My home office is a huge converted room over the garage and has the feel of a finished attic, even though it was never an attic. As you enter the room, there’s a treadmill and an upright bike on the left that both face a television to help my wife and me sustain our exercise routines. Around the walls are bookshelves that house my 40-year-in-the-making library. I have routinely thinned my collection to keep it relevant and useful.

If you keep moving around the room, you’ll run into my cool vintage desk and a weathered oversized chair. On that desk is the old “I’ll get to this eventually” stack. Can you picture me there on a Saturday morning or late at night going through my stack of old magazine articles, non-profit newsletters, and timeshare advertisements?

Recently, as I was working through the stack, I came across my last birthday card.

I’m a sucker for encouraging words, so when my wife and children write nice things to me in a birthday card, that’s a keeper. I’ll stick it in the stack, read it (again!) a few months later, and stick it back in the stack. It’s like hiding a $20 bill in my winter coat pocket to find every November.

Words like these from my family are especially valuable because my wife and kids know the worst of me—yet they still write nice things.

It’s what I call “above-the-line” thinking.

Above-the-Line Thinking

In his letter to the Philippians, the Apostle Paul writes, “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable—if there is any moral excellence and if there is anything praiseworthy—dwell on these things” (4:8).

Other translations close with the phrase “think on these things,” but I like “dwell on these things.” It could also be “consider these things.” Or my version—lock down on these qualities.

The reality of life is that every person is a mixed bag, with some good and some bad. Everyone has what I call “above-the-line” and “below-the-line” qualities. All of us.

The question is—are you a person who has disciplined yourself to be an above-the-line thinker or have you developed persistent below-the-line muscles?

This passage from Philippians plainly exhorts us to spend our time above the line.

This isn’t simply being a glass half-full person—an optimist assuming things will turn out well. Nor is it dismissing the need at times for hard critical judgement.

Below-the-Line Thinking

Paul is not saying that below-the-line things don’t exist. I know that I have negative qualities. My family knows that I have negative qualities. There’s a strong possibility that I demonstrated those negative qualities on my birthday.

In the same way, much of life isn’t praiseworthy or true. Much of it is below the line.

So, the question becomes, “What do I do with the below-the-line stuff?”

It goes back to the issue of focus. In my experience, below-the-line things—the annoying habits of a spouse or co-worker, the poor decisions of the CEO or the government, my own failed relationships or efforts at work—have a gravitational energy that is unmatched.

When I focus on the negative of a person, I’m quick to notice another negative thing. That becomes the storyline. The above-the-line material actually gets harder to find. This was pretty much the premise of the show Seinfeld.

We get stuck in negative thinking, according to this popular TED Talk by Alison Ledgerwood, both about ourselves and about others. And the solution offered is to focus on the positive.

Sounds like Philippians, huh?

The interesting thing in all this, of course, is that whatever I choose to focus on, I will reap what I’ve sowed. When I sit around dwelling on the failures of others, I’m the one who gets dragged down, not them. (Likewise, when I consider their good qualities, and what they offer, I’m the big winner.)

Martin Luther King said, “Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.” Above-the-line thinking really can transform—at least attitudes, but very often much more.

My family is living proof. I’ve given them a lot of below-the-line stuff over the years, but they don’t dwell on it. I’ve got a birthday card to prove it.


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