Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Paralyzing Power of ‘What If . . . ?’

Two common mental exercises are colossal wastes of energy – worrying and “what if….?” The futility of worry might be a topic for later discussion, but this week I’ve been reminded how pervasive – and pernicious – that phrase “What if…?” can be.

Sunday’s Super Bowl, won by the New York Giants over the New England Patriots, 21-17, had barely ended before experts and armchair authorities began playing the “What if…?” game. “What if Welker had caught that ball?” “What if the Giants scored too soon, letting the Patriots score the winning touchdown in the last second?”

Silly, but that’s how the discussion went. Rather than reviewing how the game unfolded, commentators and fans debated whether Bradshaw should have stopped short of the end zone so New York could kick a last-second field goal to win, denying New England another chance at the ball. Instead than talking about what is, people preferred to discuss what if?

Of course, we do that a lot of everyday life, too. “What if I had grown up in another part of the country?” “What if I had gone to a different college?” “What if I had married someone else?” "What if I had chosen a different career?" “What if I had zigged, instead of zagged?”

Such thinking is at best counter-productive. At worst it can be paralyzing, prohibiting us from moving forward with our lives in a healthy way. The past is cast in concrete, unchangeable, yet we insist of gazing backward, longingly and wishfully.

Do you know what happens if a farmer keeps looking back while he’s plowing? He cuts crooked furrows. And if we spend all our time looking back while driving, look out!

The Bible’s first book gives us a vivid example of the consequences of “what if…?” Lot and his family were instructed to flee the wicked city of Sodom – and not look back. However, his wife, perhaps desiring one last glimpse of her home, wondered, “What if we had stayed there?” The result: “Lot’s wife looked back, and she became a pillar of salt” (Genesis 19:26). Soon after that, doctors started advising patients, “Too much salt is bad for you!”

The apostle Paul, regretted many things he did before encountering Jesus Christ. But he understood “what if…” could not change anything. He wrote, “…one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13-14).

If we were given a do-over, a “mulligan” as they call it in golf, most of us would change things in our past. But that’s not an option. For one thing, time machines haven’t been invented yet. Besides, at least in my case, life has turned out far better than I could have hoped. Different than expected, but definitely better. So no “what if’s” for me!

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