The email subject line boldly proclaimed, “Cathy, Stay Prepared for the Unexpected.” A drugstore chain decided to tap into existential angst around our lack of control over the future to sell batteries, band-aids, and bottled water.
Usually, this type of marketing is very effective at getting my attention. I can easily be convinced to prepare for potential disasters. My ever-anxious brain is convinced that one (or more!) of them might happen to me someday, and I’d be wise to be prepared, just in case. But today, this made me stop and laugh instead of reaching for my shopping list to add first aid supplies.
Are we really supposed to prepare for every possible emergency or be labeled as lackadaisical adults? Can it even be “unexpected” if we have prepared for it?
As absurd as it is to use this statement to sell products, this is a philosophy I’ve accepted as a necessary part of being a responsible adult. And internalized it so deeply that this philosophy drives my daily life. But maybe it’s time to let this go.
Because the truth is that we can never be adequately prepared enough to avoid all types of suffering. No matter how many products we buy, affirmations we recite, books we read, vitamins we consume, and miles we run. Bad things will happen because that’s part of life.
But I confess that knowledge co-exists with the admittedly irrational hope that maybe something won’t occur if I’ve worried about it and prepared for it. Even though I know this is silly and superstitious, there’s some mental comfort in just doing something (and the rational part of me thinks, hey, it couldn’t hurt). But no matter how many preparations we make, it’s not a guarantee that we can keep everyone safe.
Oh, I’m still going to keep an (excessively large) supply of band-aids in multiple locations because there are some things you can reasonably prepare for. I would never argue against wonderful things like smoke detectors, seat belts, or savings accounts. But if we’re not paying attention, these preparations can perpetuate our illusion that we control what happens.
Unfortunately, just rationally knowing this isn’t enough to change my entrenched mindset. Instead, there are two techniques that I’ve found helpful to practice when I realize I am caught in an anxiety worry loop about bad things that might happen. My hope (reinforced by much that I’ve read) is that doing these steps enough times will gradually shift this mindset and make it less of a reactionary response.
First, be in this moment rather than thinking about a potential future. Instead of letting something (sometimes as trivial as an advertising email!) trigger anxiety, remind yourself to be aware of what is happening right now. Run through your five senses and pay attention to (by silently naming) what you’re currently seeing, touching, hearing, smelling, and tasting. This helps my brain realize it isn’t confronting danger now. And that helps eliminate the compulsion to act in response to a perceived threat, which is in reality only imaginary.
And second, recognize that you have survived hard times in your past. You have found the resources that were needed when you needed them. It doesn’t mean that it hasn’t been hard or you haven’t suffered. But it did not destroy you. It calms me down to remember I had the resources and support I needed to deal with the unexpected. So why would I be convinced I wouldn’t have resources and support the next time something unexpected occurs?
I still have a long way to go before coming to peace with my inability to control my future. But practicing these two responses helps me be less panicked about a future I can’t always prepare for and control. And it prevents me from falling for marketing campaigns that promise I can “prepare for the unexpected” by purchasing their products.
A Closing Prayer
God, thank you for sending me the message (via email!) that it’s time to let go of my anxiety about controlling life and always being prepared for the unexpected. I appreciate that you caught my attention in such a gentle way that allowed me to see my behavior in a new light and be amused by the futility of my striving.
This isn’t the first time I’ve realized I need to let go of this need for control, so help me continue to see the importance of making progress. I know that I’m likely to flail in mistaken efforts to keep myself and those I love safe and happy when the uncertainty of life threatens to overwhelm me. At these times, give me the courage to keep facing reality with the reassurance that You are always with me.
I think you know where I stand on all of this — at your side. If evidence is necessary, let’s talk about the ride on the ski lift in Lake Placid (although, if we really wanted to control our horrific demise(s), we could’ve NOT gotten on the moving beast in the first place). I like your 5 senses suggestion. I tell myself, “Is this the truth or just a thought that hurts me?” Or “Fear does not stop death, it stops life. And worrying does not take away tomorrow’s troubles, it takes away today’s peace.” Or, as someone very wise (vastly intelligent) once suggested, “Savor the moment.”
There’s no doubt that our friendship has been built over decades of shared attempts to tightly control our lives! Looking back, I can’t imagine what possessed us to even get on that ski lift (although obviously, we survived just fine and even had a good laugh about it all).
Worry and fear yuck! My dear friend has a threatening surgery coming up. She’s had to prepare for the worst, living will etc. fifteen of her friends celebrated her 50th this past weekend. We danced ,sang and celebrated in the moment until midnight! She still had to prepare and had to live in those challenging moments but didn’t stay there worrying and being fearful. Dancing with friends on a birthday can wipe away the worry for hours!!!! Please pray for Suzanne. Thanks Cathy.
It sounds like you found a perfect way to bring some peace and joy to a very anxious time. How wonderful that you and other friends could do this for her! I’ll pray for Suzanne.
Sounds like that ski lift is a good story 🙂
During times of great uncertainty, I find it helpful to run through scenarios in my mind to think through HOW I might handle various outcomes. Not so much to problem solve, more to think through how I might approach it, or what my process might look like – that allows my to let go and get some sleep – I think it’s the Engineer in me
That’s a good tip, Shauna. I can see how that would let my brain think it’s doing some problem-solving and be enough to reassure myself that I’ll be able to figure out what to do when the time comes.
“And second, recognize that you have survived hard times in your past. You have found the resources that were needed when you needed them.” Or sometimes… since for me, God’s presence can be most apparent when looking back at a difficult time, was it God who was the strength and provided the resource that got me through? God promises to be with us every moment of every day of our lives, but He needs us, He needs me, to keep my eyes wide open, such that I can be His hands when someone nearby is in their difficult time. Thanks so much for this contemplation, Cathy!!
I agree! I think some of the resources we depend on in hard times are there from our efforts, but most of it comes from God.