What If?

When you are asked one simple question—”what if?”—what do you think of? All sorts of situations could spring to mind. A far-away, luxurious dream, perhaps? As-of-yet untold possibilities? Is your mind captured by curiosity, traveling down a rabbit hole of the unknown? Or do you instead find yourself trapped in a box of uncontrollable situations? Perhaps an endless spiral circumstances that weigh you down without respite?

Mood and personality often dictate the ways in which we interpret this seemingly-innocent question. One influential factor that is less considered, though, is the external situation that we find ourselves in at the time of questioning.

This past week, in a session of self-introspection, I realized that my mind regularly searches out the branching pathways of situations, then their connected conclusions. In other words, I’m unconsciously and constantly asking—“what if?”

Ever since childhood, I’ve had a vivid imagination. I could care less about the restrictions of reality. All I wanted to do was chase the tantalizing thread of a fascinating idea or follow the path of a strange vision. I’d stare at a sunset and wonder what would happen if I could capture the sunset and live in its warm glow for eternity. Surely those simultaneously rich and bright colors were the most beautiful colors in the world. What if I could capture them? Maybe if I stared at it long enough, the moment would be absorbed into my eyes. Would the vision swim in those orbs, occasionally floating to the surface so I could see them again, or would they instead travel straight to my memory box and somehow become thoughts I could summon at will? In the case, maybe it’d be better if I sent the vision straight to my memory box instead. Since the memory box is in my brain, I reasoned, then I should try to memorize all of the details. But that was so hard since the sunset kept changing faster and faster than I could record it. What if I had a faster way to record it? …And I’d remain in this transfixed state (maybe some people called it obliviousness) until someone shook me out of my trance.

These days, I’m a lot more down-to-earth. For better or for worse, I daydream a lot less. But that desire to chase the unknowns hasn’t gone away. When presented with a problem, I’m eager to challenge myself and find solutions. What have people already tried, and what were the results? What else could have happened, and why didn’t those things happen? Before I know it, I’m pressing someone for more details about the problem and probing—perhaps uncomfortably—into things that I have no business being so interested in.

It’s a bit problematic when I find myself doing this in the most casual of conversations; I think too much about every word I hear and it becomes difficult to keep a conversation going with a stranger. I’ve noticed this makes it hard for me to do anything improvisational. At the end of the day, though, it doesn’t bother me too much. Small talk and hanging out in crowds were never my thing.

But a week ago, I found myself absorbed in a problem. And for some reason, no matter how hard I tried to escape from the problem by setting my mind free, I couldn’t get away. Every attempt at imagination seemed to connect back to the problem by an invisible thread. Any situation I could conjure mirrored the issue in some way. Bewildered, I turned to monotonous tasks (but not mindless ones) to distract me. The only way to keep the stress and unease at bay was to desperately keep my mind busy.

After that storm passed, I was shocked to realize that I had spent days without a single thought about the future. Just a week ago I had been regularly dreaming about making the perfect home, conjuring delicious meals, and walking down to the beach throughout the different seasons. That had been normal. Now I hadn’t even considered what I wanted to eat or how I wanted to spend the evening until I found myself helplessly within those situations. There had been no space to even consider—what if?

I know I’m far from the only person who’s felt overwhelmed by less-than-ideal circumstances. And I know my situation was far less dire than the predicaments that face other people. But I never considered before how badly those incidents affected my ability to dream. I was lucky enough to find my balance after a few days and reorient myself within my happy place of imagination. Yet how many people are oppressed by their situationss for longer than a few days? For weeks, months, even years? If I was in their shoes, I’m not sure I’d ever find enough calm to dream again. Stress and worry are unrelenting beasts.

Attempts to lift my mood, like going out for some fresh air or talking with friends, fared worse than I would have expected. They felt like little more than temporary distractions. Even in the moment, I fully understood that this respite would be fleeting and dreaded what would soon be coming back. The only thing that set my mind at ease was the security that came from feeling like I wasn’t in this alone. There were people dealing with the same problem; they were doing things to fix it, and I could contribute, too. I felt stronger when I came out of that safe space, a place where I could finally breathe and let my mind quiet down. Each session left my mind a little more cleared out, a little more at peace, until eventually it was free to wander again, a couple of hesitant steps at a time.

When we offer people opportunities or solutions, no wonder why it’s not enough to lift them out of their problems. No wonder why the occasional trip out of town or that meal to chat things out aren’t helping to restore mental clarity. As reasonable as it seems from the outside looking in, maybe that’s not what people really need.

Perhaps what we can offer instead is that safe space—a place to connect over problems and gain strength from each other. Maybe we need to take the time to listen to people’s problems and truly identify with them. Maybe we just need to give each person a space to build his or her own strength, instead of donating a package—a single, one-time-use dose—of our strength. Then maybe they can finally breathe enough to find opportunities themselves, to finally lift themselves out of their problems with their own dreams.

Let’s focus on creating spaces where minds are safe to roam freely. Let’s build places for people can shed their worries and let the stress fall away. Each person can come here to dream about future and all of its possibilities, whether they are dreams of wellbeing or success or simply a curiosity about how the world works. Let us create a village to nurture the hopeful dreams of a simple question—“what if?”

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