Not long ago, I ran into a friend whom I hadn’t seen in a while. She asked about my daughters and mentioned that the last time we’d talked my younger child was having trouble sleeping. It was an old parenting crisis that had been resolved some time ago and had faded from my memory. Our conversation was a good reminder that the current parenting issues–and all other life issues–will someday fade as well and become less relevant. Less all-consuming.
But how easy it is to forget this, and narrow our thinking. We become completely absorbed in whatever is the crisis-of-the-day, and see the current events in our life as all-important. And while it is necessary to pay attention to our present situation, often we become so wrapped up in daily life–our plans, dilemmas, and dramas–that we lose perspective of the long view. We forget that with time, this too shall pass.
Keeping perspective of our place in time–that we and our current crisis are but a mere speck of existence in the history of humankind–is what psychologist Barbara Fredrickson calls “broadening.” She suggests consciously expanding our narrow thinking to help boost problem-solving and improve quality of life. She says that when we stretch our thoughts to take in as much as we can we “see both the forest and the trees.”
One trick to help create a sense of broadening is to seek advice from the future. Ask yourself this question and see what response comes to mind: What advice would your future self give to your current self?
I had to walk around with this question in my head for several days before receiving the advice to not worry so much about getting everything right. To let go of all the little details and just enjoy this time as it is.
After receiving my answer, I immediately felt a sense of ease, and was able to settle more peacefully into the present moment. I had permission to let go of my efforts to forestall all the unknowns that tomorrow might bring.
Sure, this exercise is contrived and out on a New Age limb, but I think there is something to it. I firmly believe that a tremendous amount of wisdom lies within each of us, and that it is just a matter of asking the right questions. With that in mind, I sent the future advice question out to those I love best to see what kind of reaction it triggered in them.
I had several responses almost immediately. Some short, some long. A main theme among them was to worry less and keep things simple. Others: to invest some time and energy into self-care, remember to engage in activities you love, and to be happy.
Corrie Kate sent an itemized list of seven pieces of advice from her future self, the last being, “Know you are blooming right where you are planted, and that you are supposed to be there. Learn what you can from each day.”
Each email moved and inspired me. I especially related to this passionate excerpt from Mary D.: “My future self would likely tell my current self that who I am (what I’ve become) is someone who is not only fine, but truly better than fine.” The rest of the day the phrase, “truly better than fine,” rang like a bell in my brain.
My friend Seth, who is a pastor, has been struggling with issues of faith and death. (He performs funerals weekly.) He writes that his future self advised him to “have some trust in your personal ability to be more than the person you are right now, and trust that you have something creative, meaningful, and human to contribute to the vast expanse of humanity. The road leads here, and in this future, it is a good place.”
I like that idea that the road leads to a good place, because although the future is murky at best–we all will be tossed around by unforeseen variables such as the economy, natural disasters, and other people’s decisions–the future is also a shining beacon of hope. Hope that starts in the present. A Tibetan proverb says, “If you want to know your future, look at your present.” It is a full circle. We can use our future to help us gain a better perspective of how to best live our present, and use our present actions to help predict our future.
After receiving a number of responses, I asked my very left brain nine-year-old daughter what advice her future self would give her present self. She looked at me like I was soft in the head. “You know, Mom,” she said with great patience, “You can’t know what’s going to happen in the future.”
Her older sister, with some exasperation, told her to just “pretend.” Clara ate her peanut butter and jelly sandwich slowly. When she was finished, she said, as if it were obvious, “Wouldn’t the answer be to just ‘like life’?”
Like life. What easier way is there to broaden our outlook? Simply like life. What better advice is there?