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Susan Smalley, Ph.D. Headshot

What If?

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What if. Two words that may be a source of inspiration or desperation. 'What if' applied to the future may help us act toward a goal or create a paralysis of action. 'What if' applied to the past may highlight accomplishments or generate anxiety in the face of poor outcome.

I think about people obsessing about the 'what ifs' when horrible things happen. People like Bernie Madoff who must be asking "What if?" a thousand times a day -- along with all the people that suffered from his greed. Or people like Phil Spector or O.J. Simpson and the people that were hurt by them.

In all personal disasters, there comes a tipping point where the 'what if' questioning just hits a wall -- a dead-end, if you will -- and being present is the only solution. Facing death - through a serious illness - or facing the death of a loved one - are times when the wall becomes so insurmountable that a 'what if' pales in comparison and its futility is realized.

Such experiences are comparable to prison in a way. In prison, whether in a literal cell or a self-created one, being present provides escape. Prison time only becomes 'time' if you leave the present moment. It is likely why introducing meditation, yoga, or other tools is well received in prison, they provide relief to dwelling in the past or future.

Being present is much easier as I age. Part of that I attribute to the fading memory that begins at around age 30 and continues to escalate with time. Forgetting has some advantages. In lieu of memory loss, we can also practice remembering to stay present. Perhaps the simplest means to do so it to just notice how often you ask 'what if' or how often you find yourself using words like 'should' and 'could'. A few years ago, I stuck the following words on a post-it conspicuously placed on my computer as a reminder.

"Leave the world of should and could and enter the world of is and are".

This simple message has been said many ways and many times in history by poets, philosophers, writers and world leaders. Perhaps one of the most straightforward was that of Marcus Aurelius, the Roman Emperor in the 2nd century who said, "Confine yourself to the present."

What if I were 'present' all the time? Perhaps happiness would be infinite but it is unlikely that I could share the secret to it with anybody else.