Sparks column: Focus on what could go right
Columns share an author’s personal perspective.
The last flight I took before COVID-19 hit was like living through a combination of the movies “Airplane!” (comedy) and “Airport” 1970 (tragedy). We were traveling from New York to Salt Lake City, and everything seemed fine until halfway down the runway, when the plane began to shake violently, and the emergency air masks began to drop.
A few tense moments later, the pilot announced, “You probably noticed a little noise and shaking on our takeoff. We blew a tire, and we were too far down the runway to stop. We don’t think we have hydraulic damage, so we are going on to Salt Lake in order to burn as much fuel as possible before our landing” (which I took as shorthand for so as to minimize the explosion on impact). And then he added my favorite part of the announcement: “Enjoy your flight, and thanks for flying Delta!”
After a few tense moments, most people - most normal people that is - went back to reading their book or taking their nap. But me, oh no. I decide to log into the Gogo Inflight Internet in order to research all the things that could go wrong. Not surprisingly, the first entry up was a report on an Air France flight that blew a tire and exploded into flames less than two minutes after takeoff.
OK, so I went a little crazy. But it was scary, and like many people, my first reaction was to focus on the things that could go wrong.
Human beings have been worrying about what could go wrong since time began. The worst culprit today? WebMD. Who hasn’t searched WebMD for information about something minor like a headache and, in a matter of minutes, determined that you’re about to die of an aneurism?
How about this example: you send your boss a project, and she doesn’t immediately respond. Instead of thinking that she hasn’t answered because she’s busy, you immediately jump to the conclusion that she hasn’t responded because she hates it and is about to fire you.
Another classic case is when your spouse or partner seems a little quiet, so you immediately decide something is terribly wrong and proceed to ask him or her “Is everything okay?” every five seconds.
Why do we do this? We don’t start this way - we aren’t born with an innate skepticism, a tendency to focus on the negative. Sadly, over time, we become conditioned to expect the worst. Think of all the sayings we learn, such as “Hope for the best and expect the worst,” or my personal favorite, Murphy’s law: “If anything can go wrong, it will.”
By the way ... who is Murphy?
Whoever he is, our mind is conditioned to expect the worst, and the mind is a powerful thing. As the great 17th-century poet John Milton wrote, “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, and a hell of heaven.”
Focusing on what could go wrong is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Compare it to riding a bike: If you look at the ground, you lose your balance and fall to the ground. Likewise, if you obsess about what could go wrong, your consuming fear may contribute to it actually going wrong. If nothing else, you’ll make yourself sick ... which will send you back to WebMD.
It’s also a waste of time. When you spend time worrying about what might go wrong in the future, you miss the present- which, by the way, is a present. We have all been given a finite amount of time in this life. Do you want to live it in fear or in joy? As Matthew 6:27 tells us, “Who of you by being worried can add a single hour to his life?”
Since I’m here, you obviously know the ending of my airplane story. Eventually, we landed. It was a little harrowing with a lot of shaking and loud noises and a few emergency vehicles, but we made it. And I learned a good lesson.
But then another thought crossed my mind. What if they lost my luggage?
A trial lawyer turned stand-up comedian and Baptist minister, the Rev. Susan Sparks is the senior pastor of Madison Avenue Baptist Church in New York City and the author of three books, including her newest, “Miracle on 31st Street: Christmas Cheer Every Day of the Year - Grinch to Gratitude in 26 Days!” Contact her through her email at email@example.com, or her website, www.SusanSparks.com.