It’s The What Ifs That Will Ruin You

“I knew who I was this morning, but I’ve changed a few times since then.” ~Lewis Carroll

Spinning in a cycle of what ifs is like riding a merry-go-round

There is a show starting on television next week called Ordinary Joe. This is how the network describes it: “Life is all about the choices you make – and sometimes, what you do in a single moment can change everything.” In a preview for the show, we hear Joe’s voice say, “It’s only natural to wonder, What if?” We all have asked ourselves at one point or another how our life might have been different if we’d made a different choice. What if we’d pursued medicine like we wanted to instead of settling for an easier career path? What if we’d given that one boyfriend a second chance? What if we’d decided not to have children? There are a million what ifs any one person could come up with relating to their life. Let’s face it. All the what ifs we conjure up are infinitely more glamorous and desirable than our current reality because we’re dreaming, and that is the nature of dreams.

Most of my what ifs have centered around “what if I had realized earlier that the stories I had been told about myself as a child were just stories and not at all true reflections of who I was on the inside? What if I had grown up feeling loved, secure, and lovable, rather than alone, fearful, and unlovable?” These what if thoughts, in particular, have really done a number on me. They’ve taken the past I was handed and made it heavier than it already was. So, in addition to carrying around the mental weight of the trauma I endured, I was annoyed that I didn’t figure out until well into my mid-40s that there was trauma in the first place.

I’ve been thinking about this since I first saw the preview for Ordinary Joe. Here is what I have decided: what ifs may be natural, but they are not at all useful. When we make a decision, we are making it with the only skills we have at that time. Whatever knowledge or experience we’ve acquired up to that point figures into our choice. We couldn’t have done better for ourselves in the past because in the past we weren’t who we are now. When we think what if, we are imagining for ourselves in the past using our present experiences and mindset. We didn’t have our present knowledge and experience back then and, therefore, would likely have made the same choice we already made. There is no better outcome. We are where we are now because of where we were then. If you’re taking time to imagine what ifs with a more positive outcome, you’re basically in a fantasy. And while imagining a different, potentially more positive outcome (because who here wants to imagine a worse outcome) might be the kind of fantasy in which we would like to indulge, it’s only hurting us because it’s keeping us from accepting our present with gratitude.

When we focus on what ifs, we are focusing on two things that don’t matter. The past is over and done with, and we can’t unring that bell. And the future is guaranteed to no one, so dreaming what our future might look like is wasting the only time we know we have, which is happening right now while we remove ourselves from it.

I’ve decided it’s time to stop beating myself up over a past I wish could have been different. It couldn’t have been. I was who I was and I made the only choices I was capable of making given the reality I knew. It wasn’t until I understood my reality was skewed that I could do better for myself. So, I am going to try to stay in my present and appreciate what is rather than wondering about what ifs from my past or dreaming about what ifs for my future. We all have made choices we wonder about now, but that is a waste of precious time in the current moment. Maybe if we spent more time focusing on now, we wouldn’t be so concerned about mentally rewriting our past or dreaming about a future we are not guaranteed. We are perfect the way we are, and who we are right now in this moment is all we are called to be. Everything else is just noise.

Nihilism Is No Place To Live

“Always look on the bright side of life.” ~Monty Python

The news is bad. The United States continues to be deeply ideologically divided, but it doesn’t matter what side of the political spectrum you are on because the news from any angle these days is depressing. The Delta variant is exploding in unvaccinated communities, and now the CDC is saying that it is as contagious as chicken pox and even vaccinated individuals are capable of passing it along to others. The fires in the west are consuming towns, and people on the east coast are seeing and breathing their toxic smoke. Lake Mead and Lake Powell are at dangerous and historic lows as most of the western United States is experiencing an extreme drought. I could go on and on describing the news I see in my feed each day, but I am trying to keep myself off antidepressants and away from the brink of alcoholism, and you probably are trying to shake off all the bad news anyway.

This morning I was discussing these things with my 18 year old son. I told him that right now the United States is a shitshow and I need to stop reading the news altogether and crawl into a mental cave to save what little sanity I have left. He surprised me by responding this way.

I prefer not to think of the US as a shitshow I prefer to think of it as a fixer upper. Shitshow implies it is a pointless endeavor to try to fix anything. Yeah. Things are hard. But there are things that can be done to fix it. It won’t be easy, but we can’t give up. If we decide things are hopeless, we become nihilists, and that is no way to live.

Man, that kid is something else. But he’s right. As part of Gen Z, these problems are his future inheritance. What kind of parent am I if I am living in a place of doom and gloom and talking to him about them without any sort of optimism or vision? Messaging matters. We adults need to revise our talking points because we are telling our children, “Sorry about the huge mess. Good luck with that.” That’s just not right at all.

I have the utmost faith in Gen Z. My sons and the young people they are friends with are engaged, informed, tolerant, realistic, and passionate. They know they have a lot facing them, but they have a sense they will be able to succeed where others have failed. What’s more is that they know they have no choice. They are going to have to be creative, to step up and solve problems because their future depends on it. I sense this group is up to the task. They have the tools. They just need for us old folks to get out of their way and let them lead.

As for my part, I am going to work on changing my focus. Yeah. The news is bad. But the news was bad during the plague too, and yet we humans got through it. We are adaptable. We dream, we invent, we persevere. Like the Energizer Bunny, we keep going. We need to open our minds to the possibilities and stop being so damn fatalistic. And if we adults can’t step up and do that, maybe we should shut up so we don’t poison the minds of those whose vision could change everything.

I Never Wanted To Teach, But I Won’t Pass Up A Teaching Moment

On this isolated beach in the Galapagos, we found hundreds of fragments of plastic. Sad, but a perfect teaching moment.

I spend a lot of time in the car with my kids. It’s one of my favorite ways to connect with them because they’re a captive audience. Tonight’s topic of conversation was the state of the planet. What can I say? Sometimes we talk about what’s better — Thor’s hammer or Captain America’s shield? Sometimes we talk about potential flooding from eventual global warming. It all evens out. Tonight’s topic started with a plastic bottle of water in the car.

“Remember when we were in Ecuador and we couldn’t drink water from the tap in that nice hotel?” Joe asked.

“Yes,” I replied.

“Why was that?”

“Well, it was because the water that comes from the tap there isn’t as clean as the water that comes from the tap in our house,” I replied.

“Do the Ecuadorians drink their own tap water?” he continued.

“I would guess some do. I would guess many others buy bottled water because it’s safer for drinking,” I said, recalling an article I recently read in the New York Times, which stated that residents of Mexico City spend as much as 10% of their income on five-gallon bottles of drinking water because they don’t trust the city’s water supply.

“Do you realize,” I continued, “how lucky we are to have such a clean, safe, continuous supply of water delivered to our home day in and day out? Do you remember when we were watching The Amazing Race and the racers were in Tanzania and they saw all those people on line in town to fill up their water bottles for the day? That’s how it is for many people in this world. Not everyone has the luxury of turning on the tap and getting fresh water. Many of them have to go fetch it and bring it home, if they can get it at all,” I told them.

“I would hate it if we had to carry water home just to take a shower,” Joe said.

“I would too. You realize that when we shower, we’re using the same clean, safe water we have to drink, right?”

“We’re showering in our drinking water?” Joe said incredulously.

“Sure. It’s the same water for drinking, bathing, washing dishes, and watering our lawn,” I told him.

“That’s stupid,” Joe said. “We should use other water for showering and watering the grass and save the good water for drinking,” he said.

Yes! End scene. That’s exactly the thought I was hoping he would get to. At least he showed some glimmer of recognition that safe drinking water is a precious commodity. Will that stop him from taking his 15 minute shower tomorrow morning? Well, that remains to be seen. But, at least it’s in his head now.

These teaching moments with my boys are sacred to me. I appreciate when I’m handed the opportunity to remind them how lucky we are and how precious our planet is. When possible, I try to steer our car conversations so they become thought provoking ones. I regularly tell Joe and Luke that they need to be thinking about creating alternative energy sources, cleaning up the gyres in the ocean, and finding new means of getting people clean water because, unfortunately, we still need solutions to the problems that generations before theirs have created and perpetuated yet have not been able to fix. I remind them that they’re the future of the planet.

I won’t lie. I’ve also told them that there will be oodles of money for the inventors, scientists, and business people who come up with and market the solutions to these problems. I like to keep them motivated. Even if my smart kids aren’t the ones who will solve the world’s problems someday, I hope that talking to them now about these things might just make them more planet-responsible adults. And, heaven knows, this planet could use more of those. Maybe I’ve been watching too many socially pointed animated features, but I really don’t want to end up like the critters in the waterless town of Dirt in Rango…dancing in the town center and singing an old Hank Williams tune about “cool, clear water.”