Playing "What If?" Can Save Your Sanity
“Can I tell you something that you won’t judge me on?”
Always a loaded question. Not hard to answer because he is 22 years old and is looking for some wisdom (not that wisdom is necessarily my forte but with 30 more years of screwing things up than he, I might have something to offer.)
“I think my girlfriend might be pregnant. It’s kind of freaking me out. I mean, we both have college and she just got started. I don’t want to be selfish but this would destroy my life, you know?”
I take a breath. For him, this is a big one. This is one of those scenarios where his life up to this point meets the potential of life going forward in a game changing way, so I want to be careful and I want to be right.
“What’s the worst possible outcome in this situation? In your view.”
“Huh? Uh... she’s pregnant?”
“No. Dig deeper. What’s worse than that?”
“I don’t know...”
“OK. How about she’s pregnant and you find out that the baby is stricken with some sort of physical malady that will require all sorts of medical assistance to keep alive and a lifetime of care taking even into the child’s adult life. And then your girlfriend dies giving birth.”
“Jesus! That’s dark, man! Fuck...”
“Yeah. What is the likelihood of that specific circumstance happening?”
“I don’t know. Pretty slim, I suppose.”
“What would you do — what actions can you control — if that happened?”
“I don’t understand.”
I explain to him that somewhere down the line I found it helpful in times of massive change or incredible risk to assess the worst possible outcome, make a list of what I could do in that situation, what my options were, make a plan then set it aside. Then go on to the next possible outcome (just slightly less worse) and do the same thing.
In these situations, and we all endure them over and over, the fear of things being out of our control is what causes the most anxiety. Most of life is completely outside of our ability to effect it. A hurricane bearing down on your home. Cancer. A kid getting hammered and plowing into your parked car at 1 a.m. in his mother’s uninsured SUV. A megalomaniacal shitstain of a barely recognizable human getting elected (via the Electoral College) to the highest office in the land. Taxes. And, of course, the daily ticking of the personal demise clock inching you closer to the final curtain.
Sometimes the worst possible outcome happens just as you feared it would, but 99.9 percent of the time it doesn’t. It gives one a sense of controlling those things that are under one’s control to visualize the worst and the next less worst and the next, and then predict those elements in those scenarios one can control.
One thing that is wholly out of our control is the behavior and reactions of other people. We start the process of finding some way to control people by first assuming motivations and biases. Based upon nothing more than a biological sense of stereotyping, a narrative sense that comes mostly from film and television, and a self-centered belief that by fully empathizing with others we can glean some cognizant understanding of why they behave the way they do, we set out to either convince or shame folks into doing what we want.
It helps to have an unbendable view of Right and Wrong, Good and Evil, primarily derived from stories that reduce all conflict to that binary. The obvious problem with this approach is, well, life among the sapiens isn’t quite so two-sided. And those who see the world in two opposing sides — Good vs. Evil, Oppressor vs. Oppressed, Dark Side vs. Light Side — are morons and zealots.
Control yourself first. Control your reactions, control which choices are the best strategically, control the things you have a fighting chance controlling. For chrissakes, control your emotions. Don’t throw your fucking tennis racket, resist the temptation to scream at those you disagree with, be a grown up and stop yourself from losing your shit.
Once you start to get a grip on yourself, you begin to see things not in hyperbolic monsoons destroying your ramshackle man-cave but as the passing winds of change. You start to see the Trump administration as a more Monty Python version of the Bush Jr. administration without that messy pre-emptive war. Maybe that Uber driver who asked you out for a drink is not actually an example of rape culture. Perhaps those micro-aggressions are, in fact, micro rather than avatars of white supremacy.
“Well,” I said. “What will you do if she is pregnant?”
“Oh, fuck, Don. Don’t ask me that...”
“I am asking because it’s the question you should be asking. If you take some time and go through things, you might figure out that her being pregnant is not the worst possible outcome. That there are a host of worse outcomes to catalogue. If you get a rough game plan for the cascading horrors of those things worse than your girlfriend getting pregnant, then you can totally get one for that, yes?”
“Yeah. I guess so. You think I’m stupid, huh.”
“Nope. Just young, dude. The dumbest thing I ever believed was that when I was in my twenties I thought I had it figured out. Turns out, I was as much a dipshit as just about everyone else in his or her twenties. But the best possible outcome of getting older is that maybe — maybe — you learn a few things along the way.”
“What’s the worst possible outcome of getting older?”
“Immortality. That or never making any mistakes.”