Imagining the Worst

Whenever there was a mishap in his pre-school classroom, young Adam would often say, “It tood be worser, Mrs. Heaton.” My sister remembered her student and his oft repeated mantra, because of a conversation we were having about an interview I had just heard.   The interview had been with Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant in which they discussed their recently published book, "Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience and Finding Joy."    Like young Adam, Sandberg and Grant found that it is actually helpful to imagine the worst case scenario even when faced with a devastating loss.  I was struggling to understand why. 

Sandberg and Grant’s book tells the story of Sandberg’s journey after the untimely death of her husband, Dave Goldberg.  Grant and Sandberg were friends and collaborators before this tragic event occurred.  Yet it was Grant’s knowledge of psychological research that made him the perfect guide for Sandberg as she navigated not only her own grief, but the grief of her two young children.   

I think if you love someone deeply, it is only natural to sometimes consider the horror of losing them.  It is not a place one goes willingly, but those dark scenarios well up when a partner is running late, a child doesn’t call, or a parent fails to answer the phone.  However when the headlights swoop in the driveway, the text buzzes in, or the phone finally rings, the horrible visions quickly evaporate with relief.   I suppose this is why I find Sandberg’s story so riveting, because she is living my own worst case scenario and surviving.  

How she is surviving did not come as a complete surprise to me…her faith, family, and friends have supported her.  Yet, it was Grant’s advice that puzzled me, “You should think about how things could be worse.”  Sandberg seemed to have the same initial reaction as I did:

 And I thought to myself, “Dave just died suddenly. How can things be worse?” And he [Grant] said, “He could’ve had that cardiac arrhythmia driving your children.” I mean, in that instant, to this day, when I say that, I feel better. I’m like, OK my kids are alive. I’m fine. Literally. Because think about the devastation I felt with Dave, and the devastation of losing all three of them in one instant, which happens. And all of a sudden, you’re better.

Grant contends that imagining something worse is natural, because we are hardwired to pay attention to perilous, scary things.  It is in our evolutionary DNA.  Our ancestors learned to tune into the dangers that lurked in dark corners. Those who saw the threats ran and survived, and those who failed to see them did not.  By imagining the worst, we tap into our natural tendencies and can use them to find gratitude for what is.  As Sandberg explains,

And you would think that when you’re trying to find a way forward, you want to think about happy thoughts, but actually, what you want to do is find gratitude, gratitude for what’s left. And one way of doing that is think about how things could be worse. And that really did work, because the minute I thought about the fact that I’m lucky to still have my children alive, what I found was gratitude. Thank god my children are alive. And I can raise them, and I can raise them to know who their father was, who their father would’ve wanted them to be.

Ultimately, the advice of Adam Grant and the example set by 3 year old Adam helped my sister and me the very next day.  We were to move my 94 year old father into assisted living, and all three of us were anxious about the day ahead.  My dad was worried he’d made the wrong decision, and my sister and I fretted that he wouldn’t be happy in a smaller home.  However, the day started off without a hitch.  My Dad let me take him out to breakfast while the movers took his treasured items to the new place and my sister stayed behind to supervise.   After Dad had a long nap on the porch, we took him over to his new home.  When he walked in the door, he smiled broadly and said, “This is nice.” For those who know my father that is high praise. 

Of course there were a few glitches after Dad’s happy arrival, but when things went awry my sister smiled and said, “It tood be worser.” Indeed, it could have been worse.  Dad could have balked instead of being brave.  The skies could have poured rain instead of sunshine.   The movers could have made heedless errors instead of setting up my Dad’s new home perfectly.  And my sister and I could have found irritation at every turn instead of good humor and gratitude. 

According to my sister’s sources, young Adam has grown into a fine young man and is a practicing attorney.  I feel certain his speech has improved, but I do hope he continues to find gratitude in what is…even if he must imagine how much “worser” things could be. ~c.h.


On Being with Krista Tippett, April 24, 2017: