Raised by a Jewish mother, I heard “what if” pretty often.
“What if you don’t study more for your math test? You don’t want to end up pumping gas for a living.” “What if you don’t get into college? Better hope the gas station is hiring.” “What if you’re late for work? They’ll fire you, and then …” You know where this is going; somehow, every scenario ended with me dispensing petroleum.
There’s a time and a place for “what if.” It’s skillful to prepare for the future, and to have contingency plans ready for the unexpected or unwanted. What’s NOT skillful is using this line of thinking past the point of being useful. That’s where we seem to spend the most time with “what if” storylines; after they’ve crossed the line into grim rumination. It’s neither pleasant nor effective, but we still do it. Why?
What’s our motivation for repeatedly returning to this worry?
My own insights into this process reveal at least a few answers. One is that I’m trying to resolve a future situation, and I think that the reason it’s unresolved isn’t because it hasn’t happened yet, but because I haven’t thought “hard enough” to find the right solution yet. Another is that I’m overthinking for the most classic reason: I’m trying not to FEEL something, usually fear. (Check your oil, ma’am?)
Ironically, another reason is that I’m USING that fear to “stay motivated” to make sure I’m covering all my bases. Most interestingly, I find that I engage in miserable “what iffing” so I can feel like I’m doing something about the situation here and now, so if the worst does happen, well … at least I tried, right? It’s not my fault; I put in all this effort! Look at how hard I worried!!
You could even say that one of my “what ifs” is “what if I don’t ‘what if?'”
Of all of the problems caused by unskillful “what ifs,” one of the nastiest is the way it doesn’t just focus on the worst-case scenario; it freezes on it. When I was agoraphobic, one overwhelming fear was “what if I have a panic attack in public?” I had a mental picture of melting down in some crowded location, with everyone backing away and staring. The image stuck on that moment like an old-school film reel stopping on a single cell. Even though no moment in my life had ever gotten “stuck” like that, I was somehow pretty sure that THAT moment of peak terror would finally be the one. That led to this early conversation with the psychologist who started me on my path:
Him: “If you didn’t have panic and agoraphobia, what would you do right now?”
Me: “I’d probably go to Harvard Square.” (This was 1998; there were still a few cool shops left.)
Him: “Why don’t you go?”
Me: “I’d have a panic attack.”
Him: “Understood … that’s an extremely scary and unpleasant experience. I’m not minimizing that. But then what?”
Me: “I just said, I’d have a panic attack.”
Him: “I’m not minimizing the feelings involved with that in any way. But then what?”
He stopped talking. And his gaze indicated that he wouldn’t be speaking again until I’d addressed his question. So I thought about it, and naturally looked to my previous experience as a guide for likely future outcomes. And there was one common thing about every panic episode of any intensity and duration I’d ever had, which made my answer pretty straightforward:
“At some point, it would have to end.” And two major shifts began.
First, I got past the frozen mental image; it was no longer the final word, an eternal damnation of horror. And second – without realizing the significance at the time – I shifted from “I would have a panic attack” to “it would eventually end.” Viewing it as an impermanent event automatically loosened my identification with the experience as being “me.” It was a critical shift in perspective, and one that has affected my perception and practice ever since.
As Thanissaro Bhikkhu notes in his outstanding Wings to Awakening, “[t]he ability to focus on the right questions … is much more fruitful than an attitude that tries to come to the practice armed with all the right answers in advance.” Or, if it resonates more:
Rowdy Roddy Piper is famous for saying “just when they think they got the answers, I change the questions.”
The next time you find yourself caught in the cycle of “what if,” try shifting the line of questioning. After all, if there was a truly satisfactory answer to that “what if,” you’d probably have found it by the 20th time.
There are worse things than working at the local gas station. In the spring of 1998, I’d have given anything to be functional enough to accomplish that. But regardless of our situation – real or imagined, now or in the future – we always have some options. We have the option to examine what questions we’re asking. We have the option to assess whether they’re still useful. And we DO have the option to generate a tar pit of “what if.”
But then what?