Just imagine the possibilities!
Or, don't. That shit is scary.
One of my favorite things to do is to dream about the future—my mind bright and open to all of the possibilities ahead. One of my least favorite things to do is to dread the future—my mind dim and clouded by endless fears and worries.
I enjoyed the former kind of future dreaming while traveling last week. I wandered unfamiliar city streets, imagining what it would be like to move there. I peeked into downtown windows, and wondered where I’d live and work, and what kind of people I’d meet. I don’t have plans to move anytime soon, but it felt exciting and liberating to dream of a future so different from my present.
And then, just hours later, dread arrived. Suddenly and seemingly without warning, I was filled with concerns and questions. Whereas before I saw plenty of charm and opportunity, I now pictured a place full of problems and limits. Why would I be so naive to allow myself to imagine moving to a new place where I didn’t know anyone?
When anxiety creeps in, it steals our ability to appreciate the moment. Our brains play a non-stop loop of “what-ifs,” none of which happen to be good scenarios. It’d be great if I could just choose to stick with that first kind of positive future dreaming, but my sweet dumb brain doesn’t seem to work that way. Eventually, despite my best wishes and intentions, anxiety about the unknown takes over.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about whether it’s possible to stay in the present while thinking about the future. With 2019 just a few weeks away, my brain is already churning with the things I’d like to accomplish and habits I’d hope to adopt next year. I have countless ideas I’d love to discuss with others. I’d also love to avoid filling the silence with my own anxious thoughts after those conversations end.
It’s comforting to realize that many of the times when I’ve felt most present—acutely aware of everything around me, and all the things I was feeling—were spent dreaming about the future with someone I loved. I can think back to the exact moments when Jamie and I talked seriously about having kids. I can vividly recall the year-end breakfasts that my former boss Lila and I would enjoy, planning the bright 12 months ahead. I can easily imagine the hours that my dear friend and newsletter collaborator Becca and I spent crafting and “lifestorming,” brainstorming all the things we could do outside of work. I smile whenever I think about the first big future talk I shared with my new guy, how vulnerable and giddy we both felt.
It doesn’t matter that those moments were fleeting. It doesn’t even matter that Jamie and I never got to start a family, that Lila and I hit plenty of roadblocks with our work ideas, that Becca and I dreamt of ventures that may never come true, or that my current partner and I are still learning what the other wants in life. What matters is how those conversations felt, and that I was secure enough to imagine future scenarios with people I cared deeply about.
The older I get, the more I believe the ability to stay in the present is the key to contentedness (and I’m not the only one who feels this way). When I manage to be mindful of the moment I’m in, I feel happy with the person I am, and less weighed down by my troubles. But being mindful, like most other healthy things in life, is an incredibly difficult thing to do consistently. It seems that for every possibility-filled walk through an unfamiliar city, there are dozens more moments I find myself stalled by worries.
Thankfully, I’ve been able to identify things that help me stay in the now. Meditation, journaling, long walks, and staying off my phone keep me connected to what I’m presently feeling and experiencing. I’d like to be more consistent with all of these behaviors—and need to keep reminding myself that they work. I’d also like to do a better job of identifying what leads me to fall off the wagon with these habits in the first place. I want to figure out what causes my anxious brain to take over, turning up the volume of that familiar “what-if” soundtrack.
It’s no surprise that the best kind of future dreaming happens when I’m most relaxed, just as my anxiety-ridden thoughts appear when I’m most stressed. I expect that the ebb and flow of feeling content and anxious will always exist to some degree. Like with grief, the waves will never fully go away, but they’ll be fewer and farther between with time and practice, and leave me gasping for air less often.
My challenge now is to trust that my anxious thoughts will pass, and not give them so much power when they appear. So whether I’m dreaming about where I might move next, or panicking about the idea of leaving my house, it’s on me to remember that it’s all temporary—the good and the bad thoughts, and the reality of whatever is to come.
So here’s to 2019. Here’s to a year of daring to dream without fear, and to forgiving ourselves when fears inevitably arise. Here’s to loving our sweet dumb brains through it all.
p.s. This is my last issue of 2018! I put together a super short survey to get your thoughts on the newsletter so far, and on what you’d like to read in the future. If you have a few minutes, please take the time to fill it out. I really appreciate it.
Good job, brain
I'm currently reading: The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom.
I’m currently inspired by: All of you. Thank you to every single person who took the time to tell me how this newsletter has resonated with them. It seriously means the world to me.
I'm currently aiming to: Reflect on what I’ve learned from My Sweet Dumb Brain so far, and start thinking about issues and ideas for next year. (You can help me out with that!)
Researcher Matt Killingsworth discovered that we’re happiest when we’re lost in the moment, and less happy as our minds wander.
I’ve heard great things about Susannah Conway’s Unravel Your Year workbook, and am planning to sit down with it next week. The best part? It’s free!
If you’re struggling to get lost in the moment, WNYC’s Bored and Brilliant podcast series is a great place to get started. I tried it a few years ago, and it unlocked all sorts of creative space in my brain.
For your sweet dumb brain
Before we launch into a new year, set aside some time to reflect on 2018. You could sit with a journal and list the highlights of each month (and lowlights; those are pretty instructive, too), schedule a friend date to reminisce on the things you experienced, or download Conway’s workbook as a guide. Catherine Andrews — who has a great newsletter, by the way — wrote about the benefits of a “personal annual review” and shared her own self-reflection approach. However you choose to review your year, just be sure to block off time to do it. It’s worth the investment.