It was Day Six of my eight-day out of town trip, and back at home, my preteen daughter was trying to keep it together. She had been sick for several days, with a fever spiking to 102 degrees. Her sixth grade class was going through state testing for math, reading and science so her teachers were [not so] calmly trying to prepare the kids. And to top it all off, there were some “friend issues.” (Which is often a daily occurrence when you’re that age.)
During our nightly check-in via the phone, I could hear her, trying to gather herself as she told me about her day. She did a remarkable job of staying calm and focused. And then, it all became too much and she began to cry. As we talked, it was clear that the issue that most concerned her was that of her friends. The school year was drawing to a close and she was forecasting what the next school year would look like. This coming fall, she would enter a new school building as a middle schooler. Would she have the same friends, or different ones? Would her new friends like her? What if none of her current friends would talk with her next year? She had convinced herself that her social life as a middle schooler was coming unraveled due to a few squabbles in her current situation.
So we talked about the concept of “not borrowing trouble”—that thinking right now about a bad thing that might happen in the future wasn’t at all helpful. I assured her that she was up to the task of dealing with her current friendship situation, and everything else would work itself out all right before September. After a while, she felt better and we ended our call.
It’s interesting how our personal and work lives often intersect in unexpected ways. The following day, I attended the final day of a conference called WorkHuman. (I’ve written about it here, here and here.) The keynote speaker that day was Michael J. Fox (of Family Ties, Back to the Future, and Spin City fame.) During his keynote, which was an informal interview-style “conversation” with a moderator, Fox talked about the debilitating effects of projection. “So much of what we do in life is projection—we imagine the worst case scenarios of what’s going to happen to us in the future,” he told us. Fox said that all of this “projecting” of what will happen robs us of our ability to stay in the present and deal with our current situation. Plus, he added, if the worst case does actually happen, “well, then you’ve lived it twice.”
It was like a lightning bolt of awareness zapped me right as I sat in the conference ballroom, listening to one of America’s most beloved actor-turned-activists. This is exactly what my daughter had done the previous night: she had projected an elaborate story, of what “might happen,” replete with dire consequences. (“I’m not gonna have any friends next year, because everyone’s mad at me now!”)
Who among us hasn’t enumerated all the terrible things that might happen in the future, because at the moment, things aren’t going too terribly well? To hear someone who has grappled with the very real challenge of early-onset Parkinson’s disease really put it into perspective for me. If Michael J. Fox can find a way to deal with the physical challenges of a destructive neurological disease (which are in fact, a certainty), then surely, I can face down whatever perceived troubles might (or might not!) come my way.
And what’s more, I can teach my children to do the same. Because Mike Fox is right: nobody needs to live through a worst case scenario twice.
Photo credit: Asja Boros