As a kid, my parents affectionately referred to me as the “Queen of the What-Ifs.” I could what-if with the best of them. New experience? Bring on the what-ifs. What if I don’t make friends? What if I don’t like it there? What if I don’t pass that test, get accepted into that school, find my way?
My folks would jockey with me as much as possible, and often, they’d try and help me live with the uncertainty. Not an easy feat.
Who can comfortably live with uncertainty? The Dalai Lama, maybe. But his Holiness spends much time meditating; if I could carve out time to meditate, perhaps I, too, would feel more comfortable in the unknowing. But I’m too busy worrying about the what-ifs.
Parenthood has, if possible, made my what-if questioning ever more acute. What if the girls can’t sleep tonight? What if we go on that vacation and they’re miserable? What if they grow apart? What if they start school and don’t acclimate well? What if they don’t eat any green vegetables? What if, what if, what if? And suddenly I’ve bitten my nails down to the quick and driven through a stop sign.
I’ve thrown out relatively benign examples here. Obviously the what-ifs extend to far more serious scenarios, but the superstitious part of me refuses to put them down on paper.
The questioning goes beyond my children. My husband and I ask each other what-ifs about the future on a regular basis. What if we stopped doing the jobs we’re doing and started doing something else? What if we sold our house and moved? What if we went abroad? What if we dipped into savings and took a risk?
Or, what if we stayed put, just where we are, and found ourselves doing the same thing and living in the same place, 30 years from now?
Would that be bad? Could that be good?
What if we stopped, just for a minute, and pretended like there was no choice. Just this. This moment, forever.
There are moments where I think just this would be just fine. At 6 p.m. on a balmy Sunday afternoon, when the girls are running through the sprinkler and the mosquitoes haven’t descended yet and Jon and I are watching the girls and occasionally murmuring to each other about something we read in the paper. The girls climb up onto our laps and get our shorts wet with their soaked bathing suits and they bring their faces which smell like baby sun lotion up close to our faces which smell like wine and no one is crying or whining or thinking about work tomorrow and instead all there is, is this moment. I could live in this moment. No what-ifs necessary.
But these moments are just that. Moments. Not everything. Not all of life.
Can I imagine an idyllic future scenario? One where everyone’s happy and healthy? Sure I can. These fantasies keep me afloat. I reckon that’s the way everyone puts one foot in front of the other, thanks to these fantasies. But can I imagine the opposite, too? Sure I can. Sometimes so clearly, it paralyzes me.
In Shlah, this week’s Torah portion, Moses picks 12 men to go to Canaan, the Promised Land, to see whether it is a good place for the Israelites to live. It’s a scouting mission and 10 of the men come back and say, “No way. We can’t go. It’s scary there. There are people in Canaan who are stronger than us–giants! We are mere grasshoppers in comparison.” These 10 men are so frightened by what they witness in Canaan that they are willing to go back to Egypt. Anything to avoid the uncertainty of what lays in store for them in a new place, in an uncertain future.
But two of the men–Joshua and Caleb–disagree. They do not feel as the other men do. They think the Israelites are capable. They feel confident. They are ready to move forward, to live in the present, to imagine that the future will be bright, and to act accordingly.
Here’s the part of the column where I tell you that we need to be more like Joshua and Caleb. Here’s the part where I preach about how important it is to be optimistic, to think positively, to teach our kids to be confident and stride forward and live with uncertainly and be strong in the face of it.
And here’s the part of the column where you’d roll your eyes and rightfully so because life is scary and unpredictable, especially when there are small vulnerable people who count on you.
Instead, I’ll suggest this: locate your moment. Mine was last Sunday, maybe yours happened today. Maybe it’s every day at bedtime. Maybe it’ll be this weekend, at the park, a friend’s house or in your own backyard. Locate a moment in which you feel fine. Better than fine: happy. Content. Safe. Satisfied. Then take mental notes. And store those notes somewhere in your brain where you cannot possibly lose them. Proceed throughout your day. When you come up against the what-ifs, access those notes. Ask yourself if you could live in that moment that happened earlier in the day, last week, a month ago.
Yes? You could? Great. You’ve won. You’ve figured out a way to keep the giants at bay for another day. You’re more than a mere grasshopper. You’re hopeful. The future is scary but not impossible. You’ll get there; we’ll all get there, by clinging to the good moments and powering through the rest.
To read the previous posts in our Torah MOMentary series, click here.