THE WORST is going to happen.
When I was 20 years old, my father’s liver went into failure and chemicals began to seep into his brain causing it to fail. I remember him struggling to walk, unable to open doors, and even forgetting who I was. A transplant saved him, but the impact of his health on his career caused a financial burden that left him unable to heat the house, and scarcely able to afford food.
A few years on, when I was 23, my arm collapsed during a bench press, started to swell and turn blue, and when I went to the hospital, a blood clot was discovered in my arm. I was told I might die. Up until that moment, I had been possessed with the obsessive drive to exercise; now I hardly do it at all and have a constant ache and awareness of my damaged right arm.
When I was 25, walking home from a night out, I saw a young woman being raped and beaten by a man in the middle of an empty street. It was the most terrifying thing I’d ever seen. Before I arrived, five people had walked past and done nothing. One of them even had a dog. When I tracked the attacker down, I thought I was going to be killed as well. About 6 months later I testified in court and sent the attacker to prison. I’ve have never looked at people the same way since and was traumatized in ways I didn’t understand for a long time after.
Now, at the age of 26, a very close friend of mine has been stricken with an illness that leaves them stuck in a room every day, staring at a wall. They can’t walk very far, to the end of the street, maybe to the park, and on many days their symptoms make their behavior erratic. By all accounts spiritually and mentally stronger than me, my friend is now debilitated, suffering, and cannot think about the life they’ve lost without their eyes filling with tears. I honestly can’t say how their future will plan out, but it’s not the one they wanted.
I’ve learned a lot over the last few years, but the biggest thing I’ve learned is this:
Something bad is going to happen. And it is going to change your life. Sometimes for the better, but often for the worse.
So long as our lives are going according to plan, we look at the misfortunes of others and we assume that we are somehow lucky, that what affects them will never happen to us, and that the force that drives the events in their lives is somehow different to ours. Even though logically we may know this is absurd, we feel that just as many people we know are led to misfortune, we are lead to fortune and comfort.
And we think this will continue.
I’ve had my share of trauma, but I’d hardly call my life one of suffering. I do, however, consider myself more aware of just how much life can take a left turn at any moment. When hearing people’s plans for their future, I often wonder at how little they’ve planned or accounted for the potentiality it might go horribly wrong. That everything they consider to be the ‘norm’ of their life might be stripped away, flipped on its head or destroyed at a moments notice. When asked about such outcomes, these same people will often roll their eyes, as if some unfortunate outcome is so unlikely it’s frankly absurd to even discuss, let alone prepare for.
Yet when you ask those stricken by misfortune what they wish for, after (obviously) wishing it was over / cured / never happened, they’ll often say they wished they’d prepared for it. They wish they’d been more conscious of how things could’ve gone wrong, as they simply had no idea their life would go this way.
Why don’t people imagine it will happen to them?
In my own life, despite living through a state of near bankruptcy, I’m fairly ill-disciplined with how I spend my money. I save, sure. But I also treat myself to pointlessly expensive lunches or drop hundreds on a night out. Worse still, despite seeing someone’s life nearly taken from them by a psychopath, I still rarely exercise, and fail to put myself in a physical state where I’d be truly ready to defend myself. And even worse than this, despite almost dying, I’m fairly lazy when it comes to preventing the causes of what almost took my life.
Despite every lesson to the contrary, like anyone else, I shut my eyes and say “it won’t happen to me.” It never registers in my mind that that’s exactly what I was thinking up until the last time it occurred.
THE PESSIMISM EFFECT
It’s often said that we should hope for the best and plan for the worst.
Well I’m here to say:
When we plan for the worst, we achieve better than we’d hope.
When we allow ourselves to live in ignorance of potential misfortune, we allow ourselves to take our fortunes for granted; and in doing so, encourage them to slip away. But when we do the reverse, we often bring about more fortune than we’d have initially hoped.
What if you planned to avoid your relationship failing?
You’d probably work on it, you’d probably do more things with your partner, talk more openly about your feelings. You’d probably invest in a life outside of them, one with friends and interests. You’d probably take steps to diversify your emotional investments, so it wasn’t all invested into them. You’d probably look to make it work between the two of you because you’d be more conscious of what it might be like without them. In other words, you’d probably deal with your neediness and own your values.
What if you planned for bankruptcy?
You’d probably be more conscious of your spending. You’d probably be more conscious of your career. You’d probably save more. You’d probably sell your useless shit. You’d probably go for that raise. You’d probably start considering ways you could earn money. You’d probably start cultivating financial freedom. You’d probably treat money as an adult responsibility.
What if you planned that your dream might fail?
You’d probably kick your ass into gear. You’d probably start working when you didn’t feel like it. You’d probably stop wasting time on the internet. You’d probably stop scrolling through social media, youtube, and porn. You’d probably attempt your idea, fueled by the fear of failing from never starting. You’d probably push yourself in challenging ways. You’d probably make yourself more commercial. You’d probably question whether your dream actually mattered to you, or whether it was just something you needed to prove to yourself because you kind of hated who you were as a teenager. You’d probably evaluate how important this was to your life, and then you’d do it or drop it. You’d probably realize that your dream, like most dreams, is centered around something you love, and instead of connecting it with your identity, and fantasizing about success, just do it because it’s what you enjoy.
What if you planned that your health might fail?
You’d probably pay more attention to your body. You’d probably exercise more. You’d probably eat healthier. You’d probably take yourself to the doctor. You’d probably look after your posture. You’d probably give yourself time to de-stress. You’d probably reconsider some of the priorities in your life. You probably go to sleep earlier, drink less, and stop taking drugs. You’d probably start thinking about where you were spending your energy, and asking yourself why you were wasting it on such pointless endeavors.
Far from being pessimistic, when we actively take responsibility for the potential negative outcomes in our lives, we often rise to levels of performance that actively invite better results than any optimistic hope.
We’re often told to create the life we want to create, but that often doesn’t involve making sure we avoid eventualities that we do not want. But it is in avoiding those eventualities that we often end up creating the life we wanted in the first place. Further, motivations that stem from dreams are less palpable than motivations that stem from fear. Think of how you feel about achieving your dream, now think how you’d feel if you failed.
Which one seizes you more?
I only improved my dating life because I was terrified that if my life continued as it was going, I would end up the same as my Dad, with the same shitty relationship as my parents, and get dumped all over again. Before the fear, I never really cared to put in the effort, after the fear, very little seemed more important.
When we accept that life isn’t going to go our way, we begin to ask ourselves uncomfortable questions. And when we ask ourselves uncomfortable questions, we begin to create solutions to the uncomfortable results we are looking to avoid. And it is these solutions that define us, our lives, and the robustness of our dreams.
Far from being an article to put you on a downer, this is instead an attempt to empower you with responsibility. There are countless articles telling you, me, and everyone else to pursue their dreams, but rarely are we told that these exact dreams can, and will go wrong. And what’s worse, events that are entirely unrelated will crash into your life, and potentially change its course for ever.
Someday, life is going to fail you. And that’s okay. Because if you take the responsibility on board, you can prepare for it. You can learn to accept it, and develop a robust life that will survive it.
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