To not know something means anything can happen. This can feel exciting and fun, or it can feel frightening and dangerous. For example, it can be thrilling to wonder about what’s inside the contents of a beautifully wrapped package under the Christmas tree. The anticipation is half the fun, perhaps even more fun that the actual opening. But it’s another story when you’re waiting to hear about test results from the doctor, or when your teenager still isn’t home at 2am, or when a supposed friend ghosts you. Not knowing under certain circumstances causes me to feel out of control, so I try to do what I can to maintain control. This is why I like to plan ahead.
Planning is one of my super powers. My general belief is that planning makes life more enjoyable. You get the dinner reservation, the vacation rental, and the travel deal for the best price. You’re first in line. You’re not too hot or too cold. Your feet don’t hurt. You’ve already gone pee. You remembered to bring water. You didn’t forget the show tickets. I always have a pen, a tissue, a pair of readers. (I can hear my husband now... he is reminding me that there are certain things I am horrible at planning and being prepared for, and that if it weren’t for him, well.... there’d be no plan. This is one of the many reasons why I love him. He is even more of a planner than I am!)
When my boys were very little, we took a family trip to France. We had rented a farmhouse out in the middle of nowhere with a pool and a trampoline. My boys were rambunctious and accident prone, so I planned ahead and brought a first aid kit. But it wasn’t just any first aid kit. I made my own custom first aid kit. I found an awesome little plastic briefcase with a removable top shelf with multiple little compartments of various shapes and sizes, so one could organize smaller items away from the larger items tucked below. The case also had a snazzy, bright yellow handle, and I made a medical cross on the top using red duct tape for a little flare. I filled the case with Band-Aids of every size imaginable, as well as a couple rolls of gauze and medical tape for wounds too big for a Band-Aid. I put in an ace bandage for sprains. I included Nyquil, Dramamine, Ricola cough drops, saline solution, Junior Tylenol, Junior Advil, and Neosporin. My pediatrician agreed to prescribe some do-it-all antibiotics just in case someone got an ear infection along the way (which they did). I had Solarcaine, calamine lotion, rubbing alcohol, peroxide and aloe. I put in tweezers, scissors, dental floss, a sewing needle and matches to sterilize the needle for removing slivers. Toothpicks, because those always come in handy. Kleenex travel packs. Tampons for bloody noses. Qtips. A small flashlight (this was before iPhones). It was AWESOME! I felt like Mary Poppins with her magic carpetbag. Although I couldn’t pull a lamp and a coatrack out of it, I had just about everything else I needed. That custom first aid kit made me feel safe and powerful. Intellectually I knew I was not prepared for every possible disaster, but emotionally I felt prepared for most things. And that summer, although the first aid kit did come in handy, we were also blessed with no major accidents or disasters.
When things go according to plan, it’s awesome. But when things don’t go according to plan, or disaster does strike, things get dicey. We all want to feel in control, but the reality is that shit happens. Life is a lot more complicated than getting cuts, scrapes, and bruises. When something important is at stake, and a negative outcome is a possibility, then not knowing can be excruciatingly painful. All the various scenarios and outcomes start playing out in your head, and for those of us with active imaginations, the visions can take on a life of their own. We make wild guesses and assumptions, and we start weaving stories in our minds that can feel like the truth but may be far from it. We may even cling on to a fictitious reality because that feels better than having nothing at all to cling to. And when we do that, we can actually manufacture and invite the very chaos and suffering that we are trying to avoid.
So what’s a well-intended planner to do? First let me tell you what not to do.
I learned a new word recently: “catastrophizing.” This is the dark side of being a planner. It’s what happens when worst-case scenarios take over your imagination and you go down the rabbit hole of “what-ifs.” Instead of being in control, you actually lose control. You become blind, rigid, and inflexible. You can lose your authentic self, or lose an authentic sense of others. You get tunnel vision and miss important signs and messages. It's a painful existence. It can be emotionally devastating, as well as physically devastating.
In my mid-30’s I had a variety of mystery ailments. My back was going out, but there was nothing structurally wrong with my spine. I had an eye twitch that wouldn’t go away for weeks. At one point I was diagnosed with what my doctor called “CVS,” or “cyclical vomiting syndrome.” I was not bulimic; I would just get extremely nauseous and sick for no apparent reason, to the point of needing to go to the ER for intravenous fluids. Even my custom first aid kit couldn’t help with any of that. My husband at that time became resentful of my illnesses, and believed I was manufacturing all of it only to get his attention. While that was not the case, looking back I think perhaps my body was trying to get my attention. It was telling me that something was not right and all was not well. My life was going according to plan in so many ways: I had a husband, a house, three great kids, a cute dog, and life was good. Right? But something was off. I wasn’t happy, and all the planning in the world wasn’t going to fix it if I didn’t figure out why.
The only solution was the opposite of what I wanted to do. I had to let go. And the only way to truly let go is to have faith. It took a massive leap of faith to not only listen to my deepest self, but also to choose a path of extreme unknowns. I had many fears about all that could go wrong, and most of those fears actually did come to pass. I spoke in one of my earlier blogs about choosing joy. Having faith that joy was possible is what got me through the fear of taking that leap and all the hard stuff that followed. But I got through it, and it was the right choice.
Years later in my late-40’s I was planning a vacation to one of my favorite places in the world. Alex and I had been together only about a year-and-a-half. We weren’t married yet, and this was going to be the first joint vacation we took together with our kids, whose ages at the time ranged from late teens to late 20’s. I wanted it to be magical and perfect. I found what seemed to be a great vacation rental. The pictures showed a pastoral setting and three different buildings, a fire pit, an outdoor kitchen, and even a ping-pong table. But it was hard to tell exactly what the layout was, or how nice the accommodations really were. I also couldn’t tell how close to the water it was, and so on. I kept emailing the owner with a million questions, and she kept sending back vague reassurances. When I started to push with more pointed questions, she finally wrote back and said, “Ashley, allow the mystery to unfold.” Who says that? Who says that to a potential customer?! It stopped me in my tracks and I got the sense that perhaps I needed to listen to her. Perhaps this was not just an email from a random lady I didn’t know. Perhaps this was the universe sending me a gentle reminder that sometimes one just needs to have faith. So I let go, and we went in faith that everything would work out fine. And guess what? It turned out even better than I could have imagined! The place was off the hook adorable, and we had a great time. My only regret was that while my three sons and Alex’s daughter and her boyfriend could make it, Alex’s son and his girlfriend couldn’t get away from work to join us. Perhaps someday we will go back again, all of us.
I have learned that while planning ahead is still my preferred way of living, accepting not knowing what’s around the bend can be just as important. Whether it leads to beautiful memories, or harsh realities, this is the life we are given, and to live it fully we need to “allow the mystery to unfold.” We may get hurt from time to time, but we may also find hidden treasures along the way. That’s life. Just like Forrest Gump’s momma used to say, it is like a box of chocolates! You have to be willing to risk a bad bite in order to get the good ones. Be okay not knowing the outcome once in awhile. I’ll keep trying if you will. xo
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