A little over a year ago, while sipping a cappuccino in a quaint, Jerusalem café, I chatted with my friend, Gary, about my plans to write this blog. As we talked, he pointed out many of my unresolved issues, especially pertaining to my father''s premature death and my subsequent childhood in a single parent home. My friend suggested that I think about the question, "What if?"
For a while, "What if?" served as Hewlett Packard’s tag line, as a testimony to the company''s creativity and willingness to tackle problems. The concept of "what if" enables us to consider hypothetical situations and to ask ourselves how we might deal with the cascade of choices and decisions that we encounter.
I liked Gary''s idea and decided that contemplating life’s "what-ifs" could be a gutsy thing for me to do, since the strategy stood to evoke so many questions, so I took his advice. Now, I’ll share a few examples of where “what if” has taken me. Perhaps the examples might lead you to ask a few “what ifs,” yourself.
My first question was “what if” I’d been raised by two parents. How would I have turned out? Would I have been less in touch with my "feminine side?" Would I have entered the family business rather than having pursued a career in medicine? How would a two-parent household have changed my relationships with friends and siblings? And even though I have a tendency toward idyllic fantasies about my father, how would the two of us, in reality, have gotten along?
Over time, my mom has shared insights about dad. Mom’s lessons about dad’s positive traits--such as forthrightness and toughness--have inspired me to emulate the good. In the long run, I’ve found it a positive, also, to hear about some of dad’s negative characteristics. It completed the picture even though it was now a shattered portrait. At first, I admit, the negatives made me uncomfortable. To talk about faults felt rude and inappropriate. Irreverent, in fact. Even dangerous. But as I became used to the idea of imperfections, they made my “what if” relationship with my father feel more realistic and genuine. Compelled to face his flaws, I could no longer glorify everything about him, but ultimately, learning about my father’s shortcomings made him seem more human and closer to me.
I was eleven years old when my father died. Unquestionably, the four decades since his death have been colored indelibly, for me, by the loss. After dad died, during the shivah, I paid attention to the people who came to our house to make a bereavement visit. I jotted mental notes about the heroes who arrived to console us. I noted, also, people who didn''t show up.
Certain, distant relatives, for instance, who lived in another borough of New York, didn’t make the trip to our home in Brooklyn. I recently received an invitation to their child’s graduation. Resentment almost convinced me to decline the invitation, but then I asked myself, “What if the dad in that household had passed away before my father? Would I have participated in their shivah? I couldn’t say for sure that I would have, so I decided to attend their ceremony, which took place last week. Now, another type of what if, spurs me to wonder whether a positive chain reaction could develop, to enhance the relationships within our extended family circles.
My patients regularly ask, “What if?” Some with lung cancer whisper, "What if I hadn''t started smoking?" A few who were treated for cancers of the head and neck wonder, "What if I had consumed less alcohol?" And these days, many patients inquire, "What if I hadn''t used my cell phone all the time?" In those scenarios, where damage is hard to undo, the “what ifs” appear to be mostly sources of guilt and frustration. Where there seems little to be learned from pondering "what if," our energies are best re-directed, I think, to asking, "What now?" Specifically, one might think "given a situation that I did not want to experience (like the diagnosis of a tumor), what can I do to enhance the quantity and quality of my life?"
In just a few days, the Jewish New Year will arrive. Unlike most Jewish holidays, which celebrate national events in history, Rosh HaShanah is much more personal in its nature. On the one hand, the holiday compels us to assess the deeds and mis-deeds of the previous year. In other words, the what-ifs. Of equal concern, however, is the year that is about to commence. In other words, the what-nows. By learning the lessons from the what-ifs and making a commitment to seize the opportunities presented by the what-nows, we can make the most of the new year.
Until next Monday, Shalom.
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