A big "what if" riding under the current of many of our meetings is ever present to some: "What if I don't get better? What if I'm like this for the rest of my life? What if my worst fears are justified?" Who can forget the stark, haunting question of Jack Nicholson's character, Melvin Udall, asks in the James L. Brooks' 1997 Oscar winning psychological exploration of OCD, trauma, and love? A narcissistic believer in one-way boundaries, enraged by his therapist's insistence on reciprocity, he lashes out in a waiting room. He meant his words as a taunt to his fellow travelers on the road to redemption; companions he disdained as much as he loathed himself. He spoke his greatest fear out loud, and disguised it as a rebuke to those who perhaps also chose fear over love. He asked, "What if this is as good as it gets?"
When this older part of our thinking-feeling-behaving control center dominates our higher-level thinking (our "executive functioning"), we are said to be using our "reptilian brain." Our reptilian brain isn't obsolete, but it needs the help of the newer additions to our computational arsenal to allow us to function rationally, effectively, and "healthily."
It's no wonder "what if" questions get our attention. We, as a species, wouldn't be so prolific without them. We probably wouldn't be here at all. We would've ignored threatening sounds, smells, and other warning signs associated with previous danger. We might've forgotten where the crocodiles live or what happens when someone eats spoiled meat. Nature has a way of dealing with forgetful, vulnerable organisms which have no fear. It replaces them.
But there are threats and there are threats. Being afraid to cross the street without looking both ways, or wearing a helmet when on a motorcycle, or avoiding wasps; these behaviors serve us well. Checking to see if our car insurance is paid up, locking the doors at night, using sunscreen; anxiety about certain probabilities improves our chances of staying safe.
But other "what ifs" do not keep us safe. They only increase anxiety: "What if I step on a crack? What if I make a mistake? What if someone doesn't like me? What if I relapse? What if I never find happiness? What if terrorists move in next door? What if I have another panic attack? What if I become catatonic? What if something happens and I can't handle it?" There are two ways to answer this kind of question. The answer that keeps our pathologies pumped up goes something like this: "It will be horrible and unbearable and possibly the end of the world." The answer that keeps us on a path toward our goal of ever healthier states sounds more like: "I'll do the best I can with what I have; and if I don't have enough of what I need, I'll try and get more; and if I fail, I'll try again." The difference between these two ways to answer "what if" questions is stark, and it makes all the difference between not coping on one end of the "Just Do It" scale and thriving on the other end of that scale.
Isn't it time to see the habitual, over-amped exaggerations of our reptilian traits as what they are? Aren't they just tired, useless, automatic overreactions that bypass the best parts of our mind? Aren't they outmoded? Isn't it time we use "what ifs" to keep us from real harm rather than to keep us off balance? Could this be a good time to see worry and undue fear as habits we have at least a little control over? Is it about time to stop worrying about fears that might not happen and start opening ourselves up to dreams that can?
Now is a good time to start asking the right questions! All we can do is try. If trying isn't enough, then we can always just do! (Thanks Yoda.) This different attitude might feel strange and new and that can be a problem. But we're used to problems. Facing real problems is what we know we need to do. But unreal problems don't need to frighten us anymore. We can handle real problems together. It's one reason we meet on Wednesday evenings. We not only talk about our fears, and face them together, we also work to overcome them together. And together, we can move away from old, useless habits—spinning through life with heads full of old, pessimistic hypotheticals—and get used to asking "what if" questions aiming at new, hopeful solutions. What if that would happen?