Several years ago I woke at 2:00 a.m. in a cold sweat, filled with the certainty that I had ruined my life and the lives of my family members.  My mind began darting around like a scared squirrel, but I did not know where my distress was coming from.  It was a couple of hours before the anxiety and ominous feeling dissipated enough for me to fall asleep.  The next day, while checking my office calendar, it occurred to me that it was the one-year anniversary of having made an excruciating career decision.  That previous year I had tormented myself about a significant career shift that would also involve moving my family half way across the country.  I had felt pulled between teams of plow horses for weeks.  We ended up not making the move, but because we had already sold our house, staying in town necessitated the purchase of another house and all the moving that goes with it. That anniversary night, my mind had jumped back to those tormented weeks and played a vicious game of “What if.”

I don’t play “What if” or the many variations of the game as much as I used to. Variations of “What if” include “If only”, “I shoulda”, and “Why didn’t I”.  You may have your own version, but each of these games is debilitating—and completely useless.  They are useless because they get me nowhere and they provide no new information.

It took me a long time to recognize that these games get me nowhere.  I operated for many years under the illusion that worrying was essentially the same thing as doing something.  My distorted reasoning was, “If I can’t decide, I can at least worry.  If I don’t know what to do, I’ll simply worry some more.  Surely something will come to me.”  Nothing ever came from the worry except the feeling that I was at least doing something—worrying.

Now here’s the insidious part, particularly for worries like me.  While the worry provides the temporary illusion that I am doing something, it also erodes self-confidence.  The more I worry, the worse I feel about myself because nothing is happening.  I feel increasingly impotent.  However, because the worry also comes with the illusion that something will come of it, I continue to worry.  It’s like a compulsive gamble.  The more I lose, the more I wager.  The more I worry, the worse I feel, but the worse I feel, the more I worry.

What I continue to learn is that whenever my attention and worry strays to the past or future, I start emotionally circling the drain.  Whenever I invest worry in what might happen or regret about what did happen, I am heaping misery on top of whatever may already be causing me concern.  Pain in the present moment is inevitable.  Misery over the past or dread about the future is optional.

I want to digress into some personal religious history that for me gives these games such power and intractability.  Coming from a conservative Protestant home, church, and community, I grew up being told in many ways how important it was for me to find God’s will for my life.  OK, no problem.  The problem came with the corollaries to that.  One corollary was that God’s will was a singular thing.  There was one path, one career, one partner, one this or one that, and I had to figure out what that one thing was from among all my feelings, thoughts, and interests.  The next corollary was the killer.  If I missed it, well, that’s to damned bad, literally.  I could end up spending the rest of my life like an ancient explorer who took the wrong path and wandered aimlessly in uncharted territory until he either died or stumbled back to the correct path.

It took me decades to move beyond that small-minded view of a small-minded God.  I no longer hold to any of those notions, but the subtle and deeply ingrained power is still in my bones, gristle, and neurons.  It often takes an act of conscious will to remind myself, “That’s not how life works.  Life unfolds with every decision and action into something new and not yet known.”  I won’t know what happens until it happens.  It’s not scripted ahead of time.  There is no “What if” that is waiting to get me.  There is just “What now?”  And “What now” can only be seen one step ahead.