One of my favorite forms of emotional self-abuse is to engage in long musings of “What if”.  This is the futile, tail-chasing exercise of running mental scenarios of what’s ahead if this or that happens.  I have been holding this game at bay for the past couple of weeks.  I can hear my inner sinister-self inviting me to play, but so far I’ve been able to stop before getting too far into the game.  The situation described in my article “Father as a sparring partner” provides the basis for these invitations into this no-win game.

I suspect everyone plays some version of this game at times.  This game is not the same as “Useful planning” or “Weighing options” or “Playing out possibilities”.  These activities can be fruitful when engaged in with a gentle spirit and inquisitive mind.  They can provide new information about the situation and new insights into the values that underlie my decisions.

“What if” yields no such useful information. “What if” is an activity I engage in only when I’m feeling anxious, scared, or beleaguered.  Playing this game in bed leads me to lie there, staring at the ceiling in a cold sweat.  There is no inquisitive mind, no gentle spirit.  There is only anxiety and dread.  The basic question for the game is something like, “Oh my God!  I have made a colossal mistake.  What if…”  Rather than this being an expansive game, my mind narrows and simply runs in ever tightening circles of anxiety.

Playing “What if” can lead me seamlessly into the companion game, “If only”.  This is the futile activity of looking back rather than looking ahead.  The rules for this game are essentially the same, but the anxiety and dread are replaced with guilt and self-doubt.  Nice swap, huh?

The more creative and useful form of “If only” may be called “Paths not taken.”  “Paths not taken” allows me to consider what might be different if other choices had been made along the way, but again, the consideration is done with an inquisitive mind and a gentle spirit.  “I wonder in what ways life would be different if I had taken that job instead of this one.  What would life look like if we had moved there instead of here?”  With an open mind and the absence of anxiety, this game can yield useful information and insight.

“What if” and “If only” are inherently useless, even destructive, because they are based on some faulty assumptions.  For one, I assume I have far greater predictive abilities than I have.  In fact, it assumes I have any predictive abilities at all, which I don’t have.  I can make a good guess about what would have happened or what will happen IF THERE ARE NO SURPRISES.  And of course, life always presents some surprises.  My guesses about the past or the future have almost no basis in reality.  They are based in my view of life at that moment.  If I am anxious, I am more likely to predict disaster.  If I’m in a good mood, I can imagine things will work out just fine.  My predictive abilities are really not predictions at all.  They are reflections of my mood.

Heck, I rarely have an accurate picture of what’s going on right now! I barely have enough light to see the path directly in front of me.  How can I possibly trust my predictions of what might have happened or what will happen?

Enough for today.  I will continue this tomorrow with other variations of the game.  It also occurs to me that these games are self-reinforcing.  If I feel sufficiently anxious and crappy about myself, I will continue to play.  How weird is that?  But we all do, at least everyone I know.