I did something terrible last week. I'm talking stuff-of-my-worst-nightmares terrible. Even though it was an accident, I have relived it multiple times in my mind.
My husband and I were enjoying a mutual day off, so we decided to tackle the garage. We put on old clothes, grabbed some trash bags, and let his parents' old dog, Loki, out to hang out with us while we cleaned and organized. You might remember that my word of the year is DECLUTTER, so I was excited to complete yet another project. We cleared piles, threw away a LOT of stuff, loaded up give aways, listed the old grill and an old bike on the local yard sale page, put gear in its proper place, cleared surfaces and organized shelves. It was glorious. And honestly, with the two of us working together and in the zone, the progress was quick and satisfying.
The final step was sweeping and spraying down the garage floor, which had built up a year's worth of dirt, leaves and gravel. We grabbed our keys. Dave pulled out his car first. A few minutes later, I climbed in my car and drove out. What happened in the moment is a blur. I remember sensing something was wrong. I heard some sounds that didn't make sense. I looked up and saw my husband gesturing wildly in the rear view. His expression brought me--literally--to my senses, and I realized with complete horror that I had run over the dog. (This is the part where you cringe...)
I jumped out and ran around the car. Loki was standing and Dave was with him, checking him over. I'm embarrassed to admit that I failed the "will you keep your cool in an emergency" test...because I absolutely DID NOT keep my cool. I was sobbing and hysterical. I could barely breathe, let alone be of any help in the assessment.
Loki was and is fine. Miraculously, he was laying directly in front of the car, so while the car ran over him, the wheels did not. I think it also worked to his advantage that he is old and deaf, so he probably stayed in his flat, soaking up the sun position until he got brushed awake by the undercarriage. I took him to the vet anyway, and she verified that he seemed fine, checked that he had complete range of motion in all limbs, gave me some warning signs to look for in case he had any internal injuries and sent us home with some pain medication should he wake up stiff and sore.
I gave Loki everything he wanted that day...extra treats, lots of cuddles and a bath. I called my mother-in-law to confess what I had done. Even though we have a loving, trust-filled relationship, and even though I know she is a rational person, I was still terrified to tell her. She took it extremely well, of course, and even sympathized with me for the the trauma it had caused. Still, I feel embarrassed and even ashamed that it happened. You have probably gathered that I love all animals, and causing any pain to them is the LAST thing I want to do.
This incident has also highlighted an unsavory habit of my human brain. Loki is fine...unscathed, in fact. He is back home with my in-laws and living the good life. I, on the other hand, cannot stop thinking about "what if?" What if he had been positioned just a few inches off center and I had broken one of his legs? I won't go into all the other scenarios that have crossed my mind because I'm sure you can imagine them and honestly, they are too dark to write about on this blog. The point is...the dog is FINE. Why does my mind insist on continuing to ask..."but what if it had been worse?"
The flip side of this habit might be even more pervasive. Something bad happens, often something we don't even have control over, and our minds always go to...but if only it hadn't happened. We bemoan our past decisions. We regret what we've said or failed to say. "If only I had taken the other job." "If only I had communicated with my spouse better." "If only I had stayed home that night." "If only I had ordered the chicken instead of the fish."
Do you see how futile and dangerous this thinking is? So much mental and emotional energy gets wasted on "what might've been." But here's the thing...the idea of what might've been is a false notion. There is only one path and you are walking on it. This does not require a belief in fate or destiny or God's will. This just requires a lack of belief in time travel. As nice as it would be to have a Groundhog Day scenario, the truth is, we only get to live each moment one time. You can let this idea paralyze you or you can find some freedom in it. You CAN'T change the past. Spending your time thinking about shoulda, coulda, wouldas is stealing valuable energy and creativity from more productive efforts of your mind. If you are stuck in your past, you cannot be enjoying the present or making strides toward a better future.
So what's the takeaway here? What's the strategy when past events come back to haunt us and taunt us with "what if...?"
If you have ever tried meditating, you know that it is the constant practice of catching your mind drifting into thoughts and nonjudgmentally bringing yourself back to your breath and the moment. This is not easy. I doubt I've ever gone even a minute without getting distracted by my internal racket. Thought awareness isn't just for meditation, however. The first step is to recognize when you dive into "what if" or "if only" thinking and gently remind yourself that the past is the past and therefore out of your control.
If the worst did not happen (like in my story above, thank goodness), take a moment to be grateful. Yes, it could've been much worse. But it wasn't. Instead of allowing my mind to imagine a much sadder conclusion, I practice redirecting my thoughts toward gratitude and awareness. I am so grateful that Loki is alive and uninjured and will live many more days to annoy me with his begging. And I am more aware. When I go to the barn, I know there's a cat who has a habit of laying under cars. Before the Loki accident I didn't always think to check before driving away. Now, I always peek under my car to make sure no critters are napping there.
If, on the other hand, you are regretting a bad outcome and find yourself thinking "if only it had gone differently," you might have to dig a little deeper to cultivate any gratitude. What did you learn from the experience? How did that experience shape who you've become? Is there a silver lining to be found? If you struggle to find anything positive, you can still focus on two important ideas: First of all, you CANNOT go back in time. What's done is done. There is a freedom there if you allow it. Since you cannot change the event itself, how can you focus your efforts on what you CAN change? Do you need to apologize to somebody or have a conversation about it? Can you improve safety to prevent a similar outcome? Can you share what you've learned to help others avoid the same result? Can you journal about it or seek therapy to help you process? Can you allow it to be part of who you are without defining you?
Secondly, you can change. People CAN change. Focusing on the past can be helpful if you do so consciously and with purpose. If your negative outcome was your own doing, how can you move on so that you are not beholden to the badness? How can you avoid repeat behaviors or vicious cycles? If your negative outcome was beyond your control, if you are dealing with loss or illness or abuse for instance, the goal is still to focus on what you can control. How do you want to show up during the struggles? What steps can you take to care for yourself and find instances (no matter how small) of joy? What meaning are giving to these events and how can you change your thinking so that it serves you better?
It is remarkably easy to be drawn into the "what ifs" and "if onlys." However, with mindful practice, you can catch yourself and reroute or reframe into more productive thinking. If you'd like to learn more about doing this in your own life, contact me to schedule a trial session.
Wednesday morning, I woke to the following message: In collaboration with other Denver-metro districts, all Jeffco Public Schools will be closed today due to ongoing safety concerns.
In short, an 18-year-old woman reportedly obsessed with the Columbine shooting (the 20th anniversary of which is on Saturday) made threats to some local schools, causing a lockdown of a handful of schools on Tuesday, and complete closure of 7 large districts affecting 600,000+ students on Wednesday.
After the message sunk in, I looked outside and gazed upon a beautiful spring day. Birds called in the trees and the sun was rising behind one of the mesa top mountains that frame my town. I thought about my girls who were still blissfully sleeping. This would be much harder to explain than a snow day.
I remember exactly where I was when the news of the Columbine shooting took hold of the country. It was shocking then...the first massive school shooting. Little did we know what would follow, that similar stories would become mere blips on our radar...that due to desensitization and/or the need for self-preservation we would be unable to give each tragic event the emotional energy it deserved.
What do you do when the weight of the world feels too heavy? When the helplessness overcomes you? When your lack of control over outside circumstances tightens like a vice around your chest?
For me, Wednesday required constant practice at being aware of what I do have control over. And despite the hard conversations and troubled state of the world, I wanted to make the surprise day off the memory that stuck with my girls. I couldn't control the outcome of the manhunt, but I could control the outcome of my family's day.
It didn't take long for me to decide to stay off social media and the news. The anger and fear, while wholly justified, was already leading to emotionally-charged posts and disagreements about everything from how much to tell the kids to whether the school closures were warranted to how gun laws needed to change. This is not a parenting blog although I was acutely aware of how many decisions I was making about what kind of parent I wanted to be. Likewise, this is not a political post because I am a life coach and this has surpassed any political disagreement. We cannot persuade our way out of this situation. We need a complete and cultural paradigm shift, beyond party lines, beyond us vs them. But Wednesday, with the fear and uncertainty surrounding the situation, I couldn't even think about that. The weight of the world had settled firmly on my shoulders.
As I explained to my children the reason they were not going to school, the weight piled on a bit more. As I considered a threat that would cause the closure of 7 large districts, I felt the weight bear down. When they found the suspect dead from a self-inflicted gun shot wound, I did not feel relief or consolation, just another layer of heavy sadness and confusion.
My husband was not working on Wednesday, and we had planned to attack some long-awaited house projects. I also had a long to-do list for Golden Life Coaching, but with the kids home and the weight of the world settling in, I knew we couldn't just move forward as planned. Projects could wait. Making this day a happy memory could not.
We loaded up the dogs and headed to one of our favorite hikes. As I watched my family hiking on the trail ahead of me, I started to breath a little easier. As I watched my in-laws' old dog (who we were doggie sitting) totter up the trail looking 5 years younger, I couldn't help but smile. As we gained elevation, I felt the weight that had settled so stubbornly begin to dissipate. I took comfort in my daughters' laughter as they told make-believe stories as we hiked. We passed a high-centered Jeep left by an overzealous tourist who ignored "no motor vehicle" signs and consequently got stuck. I laughed at the silliness of that minor problem and imagined him walking down the trail, cursing his own lack of judgment. The day which started out full of uncertainty and fear suddenly felt carefree and fun. I knew my kids felt safe. As we rose in altitude, the weight of the world, both literally and figuratively gave way to love and lightness.
The fear and sadness that came with the threatening situation and its outcome are far from gone. I think about the school board's decision and the law enforcement's work and I am grateful, but I am also anxious. The power of one person to affect so many is terrifying. And unfortunately, I know this is not the last of these types of incidents. The threat of school shootings is but one of many anxiety-producers we face. But Wednesday was a good reminder for me. It was tempting to go down the rabbit hole of watching the news and hanging on the controversies over which I have little to no control. I am proud that I was able to turn my attention to what I could truly influence. That day with my family reaffirmed what is important, and having time to focus on creating moments of love and joy and safety also gave me time to process so that I can also work on influencing the bigger picture.
When I was a kid, my mother used to quote the serenity prayer regularly and I thought about it several times on Wednesday. I'd like to end with it here: Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.