The Worst Thing
I had a welcome visitor this week. One of the first friends I made in the Bay Area, Rachelle, was at my door. It was anything but an ordinary visit. Rachelle moved several years ago, leaving the urban mess that is her hometown for greener, saner, quieter pastures. She is the country mouse to my suburban mouse, and her visit from the country was completely fueled by tragedy. She and her family were evacuated, a lightning strike fire rapidly burning those green pastures she now calls home. In her rush to pack her family up, she left behind everyone’s masks, which we all need because of the other tragedy that continues to unfold in the uncontrolled virus that still rages in the United States. She came over for masks, a few books, and just a bit of normalcy that comes with talking to an old friend.
Rachelle is one of those people you would find impossible not to love. She is smart and sassy. She smiles and her green eyes just sparkle when she has an idea in that devious brain of hers. She is good at everything - cooking, sewing (without a pattern - I can’t even…), standing up for what is right and listening hard when you need her most. She is generous with her laughter and her love. I had only been in California for 2 weeks and I knew exactly that many people. Rachelle did not hesitate to welcome my family into her circle, and we’ve been friends ever since. I could go on and on about her. I hope everyone has a Rachelle in their life.
It’s a good thing her kids have a Rachelle in their lives because she’s got the parenting thing pretty locked up, too. We were talking about how her kids were handling leaving their home. As we would expect, the kids were justifiably upset. Worried about what next. Worried about how life will change, where they will go, and what they will do. I asked her how she handled their anxiety. She said she simply asked them:
“What is the worst thing that could happen?”
We can get dark quick with that question, but that is part of the strategy. Her kids decided that their home burning down was a terrible thing. Indeed it is. But losing their trio of family pets was simply unimaginable, as was losing a parent or family member in the blaze. Well, we do know that those worst things they imagined won’t happen because the pets are safe and sound and every family member is accounted for. Losing the house is awful, but it is not the worst thing the kids could imagine. Their worst thing is NOT going to happen, given the current situation. A fire is terrible. But it is not the very worst.
This is not to minimize their angst or pain. It is to help them gain some perspective. Kids need it. We all need it when we are spinning our wheels. Forcing yourself to continue to express and confront the very worst thing that could possibly result is a legitimate way to settle down and see what is real versus what isn’t. We absolutely can choose to be upset about the very worst of a situation. Or we can choose to separate it from what is happening in the present and what probably won’t be the worst when all is said and done.
Talking about the worst that could happen is a bit like a common strategy employed by therapists that is referred to as the Downward Arrow Technique. You start with the initial thought and you keep asking further and further clarifying questions about what it means and how you believe you will feel if certain things happen. It is taking something you are fearful of, or worried about, and drilling down until you get to the root of why you are actually so worried. In the process, you discover that what you fear that most either won’t happen as a result, or, better yet, your thoughts surrounding the entire event are distorted and can be adapted to help you feel better. It doesn’t avoid the problem. It gets to the heart of it. It helps you understand what part you play in feeling the way you do, and empowers you to feel differently about what is to come.
I, personally, think this strategy offers a bit of solace. We simply can’t control what is happening - we can only control our feelings about what is happening. When we do a deep dive into imagining the very worst thing, we often emerge with a renewed sense of gratitude for what we already have in front of us. It is way more complicated, but on its face it works because it strips away the distractions, allowing you to focus on the real issue at hand, one thought at a time.
I think we are often told to not think about the worst. Why be negative? Why dwell on what could happen? Why spend your energy on something so depressing? All I can say is that we can talk about negative things, and acknowledge negative things without dwelling on them. And since life happily dishes out pretty equal doses of positive and negative over the course of our lives, we simply shouldn’t try to ignore any and all things that we find difficult. Acknowledging the worst that could happen prepares us for when things get hard, and they will get hard. And that’s just part of living a full life.
Leave it to Rachelle to already know the right way to help her family through this, even without the coaching training. She is so good like that. As we sat on the deck laughing about kid antics, months of bad hairstyles, great books, and bad pedicures, I know we were both also thinking about her little home on the hill, fighting the good fight against some powerful forces coming its way. At that moment, I even found myself thinking about the worst. Her family could lose their home. They could move even farther away. Both terrible things. But I know for me the very worst thing would be to lose Rachelle. As long as she stays a step ahead of the fire, that’s not gonna happen. And I can totally live with that.