When You Live Life in the Hypothetical

Photo credit: Martin Brigden
"Why wonder about the loaves and the fishes?
If you say the right words, the wine expands. 
If you say them with love and the felt ferocity of that love and 
the felt necessity of that love, the fish explode into many.
Imagine him, speakng, and don't worry about what is reality,
or what is plain, or what is mysterious.
If you were there, it was all of those things.
If you can imagine it, it is all those things.
Eat, drink, be happy. 
Accept the miracle.
Accept, too, each spoken word spoken with love.
-Mary Oliver, Why I Wake Early

I live life way too much in my head. In fact, it is a thriving cerebral swamp of stories about what has happened in the past, what is happening now, and what could potentially happen in the future. I daily struggle against this quagmire of imaginations, and have to constantly evaluate what is reality and what is not….I’m really good at convincing myself of things that aren’t true.

My favorite spiritual teachers, Eckhart Tolle, Byron Katie, and Richard Rohr, among others, frequently teach that the past and the future are both illusions.  The only thing that is real is the present, the NOW. Like so many others, I’m horrible at living in the Now. But even then, I’m not so great at living in what really happened in the Past either.  I tend to spend most of my time in the hypothetical past and the hypothetical future.

When I was young, my mother made a couple of really harsh statements to me that have stuck with me since.  Now, this is not a “my parents’ ruined my life” post.  My mother was a wonderfully complex person with alot of flaws and alot of strengths and virtues.  And I’ve made enough tremendous belly flops as a parent to know that we are all going to say really stupid things to our kids at times.

These two comments, in particular, wormed their way into my psyche, and I internalized them as being representative of my identity. I spent the next half of my life striving against those beliefs to prove they weren’t true. Every time I did fail, it just seemed to reinforce them. Actually, I think my believing them just became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Here’s the point I’m trying to get to: in my efforts to avoid living out the beliefs of those statements my mom made to me, I would conjure up every possible hypothetical situation related to them and come up with contingency plans to avoid hypothetical outcomes. Can you say stressful? It is exhausting to try and plan ahead for every possible damning dilemma that might arise.

One of the statements was about my inability to keep a house clean, take care of my things, etc. The truth is, until I hit my mid-20s I was an absolute slob. There’s just no denying it.  But I set out to prove my mother wrong…that I could, in fact, keep house with the best of them, and I vowed to not be judged by people that would come to my house because there wouldn’t be anything to judge.

Stop laughing, y’all.  I know this sounds ridiculous, but it was really the place I was in.  I would frantically try to control things to keep the house tidy. I would have anxiety attacks every time I failed, or the kids made a mess, or something wasn’t done to “my” specifications. It took me until I was in my early 30s to realize that all the people that came to my house weren’t the types of people that would judge how it looked.  Instead, I was killing myself trying to please “hypothetical” people – the snarky, snobby people that would surely cross my thresshold at some point and sneer at my home.  These hypothetical people are relentless…you can never please all of them, and they all have different opinions about how things should be anyway.

On a quick side note, it took me 25 years to realize that the hurtful statements my mom made about me…weren’t about me.  They were never about me.  She was simply putting her own fears about hypothetical situations onto me.  And when I say stupid, hurtful things to my kids…it’s never really about them.  It’s just me projecting my own hurts and fears onto them.

Like most people, I struggle with “what-ifs” about the future, and I try to make fail-safe plans. But I struggle more with the hypothetical past. I conjure up all the stories about the way things could have gone, and in my head, I struggle to figure out how I would have done things if one of those stories had been reality instead of what actually happened. If your brain is tangling up with that, welcome to what the inside of my head looks like.

Somehow, in my mind, I tend to believe that the way I got to where I am is not legitimate and I have to somehow justify myself through coming up with plans for scenarios in the past that never occurred.  For example, my parents were very generous and paid for a huge portion of my undergraduate education.  I worked part-time and got scholarships, but they definitely footed the bulk of the bill.  At the time, I would look at some of my friends who had no support from family, and how they worked and took out loans to pay for college by themselves. I would feel guilty that I didn’t have to do those things to get through school, and come up with a complex plan in my head of how I would have put myself through if my parents hadn’t stepped up.

Here’s another example…(most of these hypothetical situations deal with money or my white privilege or something like that.)  I’m single now after a long marriage, and am putting myself through nursing school, paying a mortgage on a house, etc.  My money situation is currently secure because of the way my ex and I worked out our divorce settlement and I freelance on the side. But I still feel the compulsive need to figure out in my head how I would have made everything work up until now if I was like so many other single moms struggling really hard to make ends meet.  Or, like so many of my nursing school friends who are having to take out massive loans to complete the program.

When I take on these hypothetical past situations in my head, I will almost work myself into anxiety or panic attacks when I can’t figure out solutions for the imagined problems that didn’t actually happen.  Essentially, I spend most of my life in the past striving to justify myself and the choices I’ve made by proving, in my imagination, that I could have survived other realities.  I spend the other portion of my life living in the hypothetical future, thinking of what goals I need to reach within certain timeframes to also justify and legitimize where I am right now.

This, as you all must know, is a complete exercise in futility. I’m only fighting with ghosts and apparitions.  The fact is, the only reality that will ever happen is the reality that is happening right now. If my parents hadn’t paid for my undergrad, that would have been my reality at the time and I would have made choices regarding that reality. But, reality was that they paid for college, and it helped get me to where I am now. Arguing with that is dumb.

The same with my present situation. My reality is that I’m in nursing school, I freelance write on the side, and I am doing OK money-wise. This is what life has brought to me and arguing with it or hypothesizing about every possible permutation of what reality could be is saying that reality (or life or the divine) isn’t good, isn’t what I need at this moment. I am where I am right now, and it is all grace. When I argue with what happened and try to control what will happen in a way that makes me feel validated, I’ve pushed away grace.

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.” Ephesians 2:8-9

Julie’s interpretation of this verse:  You’re perfectly OK, right here, right now because you trust what life brings you. You don’t ask questions, you don’t try to rationalize anything. You just accept your “is-ness” as a gift. And since you know that life brought everything to you and not the other way around, you know bragging about it is silly.

So, all of this to say…don’t be like me.  Don’t fritter away so many of the good Presents of your life to dwell on the dead Past or the never graspable Future with all of their hypothetical could have beens or might be’s.  All we have is Now.  It is a gift.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s