On What Ifs?

During law school, I had about a one-half mile walk between the parking lot and the classroom building. I made that walk countless times, and, from those walks, I have one memory: winning the lottery. Frequently, with my backpack weighed down by heavy (and over-priced) casebooks, I daydreamed about my life if I won the lottery as I walked.

I wasn’t greedy; my daydream usually entailed winning a modest jackpot, say 25,000,000 or so. Forbes magazine would not put me on the cover, but the winnings were always enough, after tax of course, to live a life of leisure. Work would be optional, and every wish and whim would be attainable. By the time I got around to the smaller details, I would arrive at the school and begin my studies. I’m pretty sure I never was able to lay out the floor plan for my fourth house, unfortunately.

My lottery winning daydream was odd, given that I didn’t play the lottery, but it was, of course, not about actually winning. Rather, it was the escapism of the “what if?” Law school is a particularly stressful time, and I’m certain my daydream was one way I left the stress behind, even if for just a few minutes.

Daydreaming about winning the lottery isn’t unique, and, for the most part, it seems a harmless diversion. I’ve noticed, though, that many people get wrapped up in “what ifs?” that aren’t as benign. You see folks become unglued or permanently sidetracked by bigger life “what ifs?” like “What if I hadn’t lost that job?” or “What if that relationship hadn’t failed?” or “What if he hadn’t died?” The list is endless. The questions aren’t just thought experiments on the alternative paths our lives could have traveled, but, rather, the questions often become indictments of the present, expressions of displeasure on the current state of affairs.

The danger of “What ifs?” is that we don’t take complete ownership over our own lives. We blame events or other people from the past for our current situation. Maybe chance events or other people did in fact play a part in bringing us to this moment in time, but focusing on that absolves us of our responsibility for leading our own lives. In the process, it also robs from us the power to change our lives.

You can dream about winning the lottery, wish for different things, or ruminate over events that happened in the past, as long as you understand that those activities don’t move your life forward. They don’t address the present, they don’t control the now, and they only have the power you grant them.

I spend a lot of time inside my own head. I guess most people do. But I find that, as I get a little older, I spend less time there. There’s too much to do in the present, and I think that’s a good thing. Thinking is great, but, often, doing is better. Being in the moment and focusing on the here and now. Setting aside the what ifs and understanding that the biggest reason our lives are what they are is staring back at us in the mirror.

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