What if . . . we stopped asking “What If”?

What if . . . we stopped asking “What If”? August 20, 2017

what if

There are few pastimes more popular than playing “What If?” It’s a favorite theme, for instance, in popular television series and movies:

  • What if the Allied powers had lost World War II? (Amazon’s “The Man in the High Castle”)
  • What if the Confederacy had won the Civil War? (HBO’s planned “Confederacy”)

and is a favorite pastime of sports fans:

  • What if Pete Carroll had not made such a bonehead call at the goal line in Super Bowl XLIX? (The New England Patriots might not have won their fourth Super Bowl)
  • What if Steve Bartman had not deflected the foul ball from the Cubs’ Moises Alou in the NL championship series in 2003? (The Cubs might have gone on to win the World Series)

But perhaps the favorite context for playing “What If?” is politics.

I was reminded of this a few weeks ago on the six month anniversary of President Trump’s inauguration. To mark the auspicious occasion, I innocently posted this on Facebook:

If you are keeping score, Trump presidency: six months; Days of winning: zero

Followed by this reminder:

trump tired of winning 2

The “likes” immediately began popping up, along with emojis equally distributed between “sad” and “haha” and some appropriately humorous and snarky comments. But then this comment showed up:

Him: Well, at least we’re not in WWIII yet, which was nearly assured had Mrs. Clinton won the presidency.

I carefully cull my Facebook acquaintance list regularly, so I immediately wondered “How did that troll get in here?” The answer was that the comment came from my newest Facebook “friend,” who, upon receiving his friend request, I added to my list not long ago without doing my usual due diligence. Had I done so, the fact that he frequently shares stuff from “Russian Insider” on his own page should have told me something.

I provided a not-so-tolerant one word rejection of his opinion in my response to his comment, and it was on. We had a several-comment exchange during which I attempted to focus our collective attention on the president that we actually have rather than guesses about “what if Hillary had won”; one of his comments included the following:

Him: Long before the Clinton camp began blowing off about Russian meddling in the election – the election which she conveniently lost – it was think tanks like The American Enterprise Institute, The Hoover Institution, The Project for the American Century, et al, who were shifting their ideological focus from Middle East-centered policy proposals to Russian-centered ones, and by fabricating outlandish scenarios of ‘Russian aggression,’ so-called. Trump is a vulgar dope, yes, but Mrs. Clinton was a full-blown maniac, with blood already on her hands. I count my blessings that she has hopefully retreated into political obscurity.

My initial impulse was to respond What the f—k are you talking about?? followed by a half dozen appropriate emojis. Instead,

Me: Please tell me why you find it entertaining and/or informative to dig into something that became beside the point over eight months ago. I disagree with just about everything you just wrote, but it doesn’t matter. Trump won, Hillary did not. We are in the middle of the presidency of the least qualified person ever to even run for the office, let alone win it. I have zero interest in arguing with you about a “what if” scenario. BTW, a “yeah it’s bad, but it would have been worse if . . .” argument is the worst kind of argument you can offer, given that it is built out of the unknown. Talk to me about how relieved you are that Trump won in a few months.

“QED, my work is done here, I thought,” proud of myself for offering the guy a brief, unsolicited lesson in Logic 101.

Then last week Jeanne and I went to see An Inconvenient Sequel, Al Gore’s follow-up to his 2006 blockbuster And Inconvenient Truth. The focal point of the the second half of the documentary was the negotiation and ultimate passage of the 2016 Paris Climate Accord, a process that more that 150 countries participated in. Gore had a significant role to play behind the scenes in the successful signing of the accord; knowing that Donald Trump would withdraw the United States from the accord a few short months later did not improve the viewing experience. As I listened to Gore throughout the show, hearing his vocal cadences and seeing his body language for the first time in several years, I was transported back to the end of 2000.
  • What if Al Gore had become President instead of W? Would 9/11 have happened? Would we have ended up in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? Would Joe Lieberman have been elected President in 2008? Would we have avoided being a world-wide embarrassment on climate change and the environment in general?

And so on. I wallowed in this particular version of “What If?” for a minute or two, until I realized that I was doing precisely what I had called the Facebook guy out for doing a day earlier—spinning my wheels in what might have happened rather than living in the aftermath of what actually did happen. I hate it when I have to hold myself answerable to standards I apply to others.

In his usual earthy, humane way, Jesus often reminded those who would listen—and tells us 2000 years later if we will listen—that the “What If?” game not only is an exercise in wasting time, but also is a favorite technique for avoiding the important business of living out what is right in front of us. In the middle of the Sermon on the Mount, he addresses a version of “What If?” that most of us spend a great deal of time playing:

  • What if I don’t have enough money to pay the bills?
  • What if I can’t feed and clothe my family?
  • What if I lose my job?
  • What if the car breaks down?

This version of “What If?” causes us to stress about the future, to hoard as much as we can as protection against a rainy day that might happen, and spend so much time focused on what might happen that we forget to pay attention to what is happening. Jesus’ prescription to this malady? Stop doing that.

  • “Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns . . .”
  • “Which of you by worrying can add one cubit to his stature?”
  • “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin . . .”
  • “Do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?” . . . for your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.”

Nice sentiments, but to be honest, they sound innocently idealistic and Pollyannish. My heavenly Father may know that I need food and clothes, but when’s the last time my heavenly Father bought me a meal or gave me something to wear?

My guess is that Jesus knew that his advice might be taken this way, because he closes his “don’t worry” riff with something very practical and insightful.

Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.

Ain’t that the truth? Jesus isn’t saying that our worries are without foundation. He’s saying, rather, that excessive worrying about the future in the “What If?” mode distracts us from what we should really be worried about: today! He sounds like the stereotypical Jewish mother: “What?! Today hasn’t given you enough to worry about so you have to worry about tomorrow?” Jesus’ message is to pay attention to what is going on right now, not to what might have happened in the past or what might happen in the future. There’s more than enough in front of my face to keep me busy today. As the leader of a workshop I attended a few years ago regularly reminded us, “Be where you are and do what you are doing.” Where I will be and what I will be doing tomorrow will take care of itself.

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