"…and Then We Die"

Published on January 19th, 2020

Well, we could go to Paris for a romantic getaway. But what if... What if we just happen to get there during a protest with the Yellow Vests. We could be walking down the street while minding our own business only to find ourselves on the wrong side of a SWAT team line. An outbreak of violence ensues, and as we try to run to safety. We get trampled over as people flee the tear gas. We barely get up, and then bullets are fired. We just happened to be in the crossfire…

…and then we die.

We take a wrong turn in Denver and wind up in the wrong part of town (insert five more unlikely run-ins of bad luck)… and then we die.

A white van pulls up beside us in the parking lot… and then we die.

We get caught up in a snowstorm in the mountains, run out of power, water, and food for a 45-day period… and then we die.

We woke up to a 100% normal typical day, catch the West Nile virus from the Uber driver… and then we die.

If you haven't caught on, this is an absurd line of thinking. Logically, we know that the odds of these terrible events lining up and stacking up are potentially 1 in a million (or billion). And yet, this is a game that can all get sucked into. What? It can feel very real when our fears run amok and are not grounded in reality. In cognitive behavior therapy, this is called "catastrophizing," where a person's thoughts always seems to zero in on the absolute worst-case scenario.

It's a mental trap that can quickly become a habit or our default reflex. The mind is incredibly inventive and creative when you give it a task. Ask it "what's the worst that can happen" and stand by and watch the sheer number of horrors it can conjure up.

Fortunately, it doesn't have to be this way! Instead of trying to find a way to tack on "…and then we die," we can give our brains a new game to play. A neutral version could be "…and then nothing happened." A better version: "…and they lived happily ever after." Or you can even use the version my brother uses when he catches himself telling a story that is going nowhere, and he wants to end it quickly: "…and then I found $5."

Whatever it is, be careful with playing the worst-case scenario game. And if you do decide to play, actually end with a realistic scenario (e.g., is it death or just being robbed). And then actually assign a realistic probability of it happening (e.g., incredibly low). Finally, make peace and accept that while this is a possibility, odds are you are going to experience something much better than that and move on. After all, we all still need to live our lives, and we can't stay home in a protective bubble all day every day.

Nobody wins in the game of "…and then we die." So play a better game!

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About Rick Manelius

Quick Stats: CXO of Atomic Form. Graduated from MIT in '03 (BS) and '09 (PhD). Life hacker and peak performance enthusiast. This blog is my experiment in creative writing, self-expression, and sharing what I've learned along my journey. For more information, read my full bio here or contact me.