What If?


My daughter, Maia sent out this prompt, asking her community to share projections that generate anxiety. She has obsessive compulsive disorder. OCD is a condition where panicky answers to “what if,” are not immediately alleviated by the chemical response that says, “that’s pretty damn unlikely.” Executive overwriting fails to interrupt the looping of a fight or flight response, leaving one using avoidance or ritual behaviors that at best are ineffectual at assuaging false beliefs and, at worst will to reinforce them.

I kept putting off making my “what if” list. As her mother, our “what ifs” are somewhat triggering for each other. I helped to program many of my daughters concerns and I am loath to share any that might involve her. In my years of reassuring and admiring her obvious courage in facing so many fears each day, I’ve also had to go half-way there with her. After decades of developing the necessary serenity, I’m not exactly Alfred E. Neuman, but I now suffer very few occasions of loud, conscious what ifs. But, while I initially thought I had little to examine in answering this prompt, it was actually deeply thought provoking.

My projection–based anxiety is more free-floating, not attached to any specific possibility for future me or future others. The farther I project into the future, the less urgent my current cares become, inducing relaxation which leads to procrastination. Sure, deadlines, challenges and to-do lists can shorten my breath. But, I’ve spent decades training hard to swap anxiety for equanimity, a state where past and future wield less mood-altering power. I’m now pretty good at avoiding traps of guilt, hope and fear and accept a good amount of whatever is happening right now. States I label anxiety have emotional causes, physical symptoms and a spiritual cure. As long as I can keep my goals metaphysical, solutions are always accessible.

Trouble is, with the more productive, material and creative goals for past and future self, this anti-anxiety meditation is likely to diminish or shelve aspirations until widowhood or the weekend. I can put a lot of pressure on future self. SHE will win the Pulitzer. SHE will start a retirement account. SHE will clean out the basement so the kids don’t have to do it when I die. All this deferment of anxiety leaves a lot of permission to do only what seems important right now - and right now is pretty vulnerable to impulses, TV, internet, daydreams and the needs or requests of other people.

I think about what younger self planned for, what brought hope and discipline to her life. Being a dancer, singer, writer, teacher tapped what felt like my power, authenticity and deepest channels of expression. Everything else was just busy work. And while I’ve managed to dance, sing, write and teach a bit during my life, the busy work often took up more time and exhausted me for little more than laundry, reading and TV at the end of a day. The day jobs, the maintenance, the social and sober obligations of life have generated some regret about being no closer to that Grammy, Emmy, Toni, Nobel, Oscar, or Pulitzer (GETNOP.) So, while Taoist philosophy and Buddhist meditation handily bring more contentment to quiet my ambition, it hasn’t silenced it completely.

My conscious mind is not so concerned with “what if I do…?” questions about negative events and consequences. Maintaining my home, finances, relationships and all the other moment to moment stuff keeps me responding to “what if I don’t…?” questions, rooted in an unconscious survival directive to maintain the status quo.

I guess I’m pretty basic. Folks see me as sane, sober, practical. But, what if, like some madmen and geniuses, I found my obsession, my discipline, my disregard for the terrible dailyness of human existence? What if I decided to risk comfort, security and sleep to pursue my art, quest, crusade, or cause célèbre? I assume folks who do this are not unconsciously tripping over the time-consuming details of daily life. They very consciously consider and are driven by the possibility of success. Not just any, but monumental success - or devastating failure. They are asking “what if I can change global perception to support my imaginings?” We all occasionally descend this rabbit hole and wish folks could join us. But, for a change-maker, the most terrible “what if,” is compromising their vision to maintain order or fit in.

“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” ― George Bernard Shaw

We are all dealt a hand of unreasonableness at birth which, for folks who keep playing it can bring great power, death or jail. For certain individuals (looking at you Roger Stone,) the prospect of death or jail are far less a concern than not winning. Asking “what if I fail?” isn’t an option. Leaders, artists and geniuses have easily foregone sanity, morality and family to reach their dreams of domination or acclaim. But, I hold those things too dear. They are my primary source of comfort and love. “What if the world doesn’t acknowledge, obey or adore me?” is a far less compelling question than, “what if I don’t feel good about myself?” Dang it. Plenty of narcissists feel good about themselves while placing their desires above all. Why can’t I? Why is being an increasingly nicer person so vital to my self-worth? I ardently navigate the middle way to avoid drama. I tend to be as focused on pleasing others as on pleasing myself. My quest to avoid suffering and dissolve its roots of anger, avarice and illusion requires that I abstain from certain consumption, environs, fears, hopes, and other toxins to my nervous system. I don’t long for nerves of steel, but can’t help but wonder what if I could trade all this peace and security for being obsessed or compulsively driven.

What if I don’t get my best work published or produced? My ego worked hard all my life to convince me that I have something important to say, that everyone needs to hear. Not being heard still accelerates my heartrate. What if I’m ignored or treated with distrust or disinterest? People not listening, caring about, trusting or respecting what I say has triggered more rage and insecurity than any other harms that people have done me. Like an adult onset allergy, I developed an intolerance for relationships lacking regard, courtesy and curiosity. I used to get really pissed off by people who jump to contempt prior to investigation, people who talk only to discover, impart and revel in what they have to say and what they know. Like most of us, I was overexposed to folks on the narcissism spectrum. For a while I didn’t know why I felt hurt and lonely all the time. I took it all pretty personally. Now, more often than not, I listen to their stories, revel right along with them at the wonder of their experience and knowledge. I avoid going down a one-way street when I encounter it. I know if I accept any grand promise to assist in my becoming, it will only result in my becoming more like them.

Learning to avoid the expectation of intimacy with narcissists is a pretty powerful self-actualization. While I’ve definitely spent alone time honoring the question, “what if I can’t protect my heart,” I accept my attraction to those for whom impenetrable self-centeredness is a source of strength. But, as a therapist once told me, I am not obliged to rely on them, bring them home, or feed them. I still need to cope with those embedded in my life, but I don’t do it alone. Al-Anon is essential.

Why do I need to be heard, understood, appreciated? Because, surely my revelations would alleviate their suffering… or maybe it would just feel powerful and cool. What if the world doesn’t collectively gasp at the wisdom I impart? This notion of failure was mildly inconceivable in my twenties and, not surprisingly, thwarted many attempts at success. In my late fifties, failure is an acceptable likelihood. And, while the consensus is to call that growing up, this resignation is also an ingredient for growing old and irrelevant. It’s a mixed bag. The truth is while I’m not going to stop wanting to live forever or gain the greatest insights about the human condition, I clearly won’t sacrifice the simple pleasures and peace of mind that could be slowing my global recognition. Aversion can be a bigger motivator than avarice. If it bugs me enough, maybe I’ll invent a way to clean the inside of my windshield that’s so easy I actually want to do it. But in the meantime, that grime that makes headlights blind me will be another reason to deepen my equanimity. Letting go of to-dos and what ifs that threaten my freedom and peace, I practice with mild determination things that may or may not make me rich and famous.

Please don’t think me apathetic or cynical. I’m not. I appreciate and participate in the magic of my ordinary life. Affirmations and law of attraction beliefs won’t improve on that. While gratitude can be a temporary balm for the Vagus nerve, hope and fear are two sides of the same coin. The coin for which we often sell out our serenity. Programming myself to consider only hopeful, positive outcomes isn’t sustainable. That way lies expectation, entitlement and disappointment. Hillary most assuredly wanted the presidency enough. She just didn’t play as dirty or manipulate as susceptible a demographic as did Roger Stone and the Russian oligarchs. To be ‘all in’ doesn’t require we surrender our doubt, just that we proceed in spite of it. In high stakes games, it often means acting without sanity or morality. Most of us feel that ante is too high.

Being just the right amount of self-centered is working for me. My what ifs focus on my own well-being, because tapping into what ifs about the behavior of others, natures balancing acts, or anything else I can’t control, make anxiety insufferable. So, when I am thrown by empathic distress, fear or desire, I close a mental door, take a slow deep breath, and then another. I filter the anxiety of the world through a well-toned nervous system. I will continue to hone this happy reflex, keeping it accessible until the ultimate “what if” is realized.

What are your “what ifs?”

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