What to Do When We Think the Worst

What to Do When We Think the Worst

Rev. Dr. John Fullerton

I received some of my best pastoral care teaching from an episode of the 1990s sitcom television series Home Improvement. Tim and Jill Taylor are a husband and wife from Detroit and the series is built around various quirks and problems in their lives. 

One day, Jill forgot to bring Tim’s convertible hotrod inside. She left it out overnight and it snowed that night. She did her best to dry it out and get it back in order, but she thought Tim was going to be upset, so she went to her neighbor Wilson to talk about it. Wilson was the neighborhood sage. He was often the go-to guy for solving the Taylors’ problems.

Jill talked at length about what happened, and she imagined one reaction after another Tim might have when he learned his hotrod was flooded with melted snow. After a few minutes of her dwelling on all the possible terrible things that could happen, Wilson finally said, “You know, Jill, a little bit of knowledge and a vivid imagination can make a person cuckoo.” 

“A little bit of knowledge and a vivid imagination can make a person cuckoo.” 

Imaginations Gone Wild

That was some of the best counseling advice I ever heard. People do it all the time. I’ve done it more than I care to remember. When something goes wrong, people’s thoughts go straight to the worst possible outcome. 

When I served in the emergency room as a student chaplain while in seminary, I often met people before they saw the doctor. They knew they were sick, but they didn’t yet know the diagnosis. They had a pain in their body. That was real. But inevitably, they imagined it was a growing cancer that would kill them within weeks. Seldom were they imagining the lesser possibility. Their imaginations went wild. 

Everyone has negative thoughts. Being sick enough to go to the hospital is a problem. Or, to use another example, making a mistake at work may be a real and a serious issue. Those are uncomfortable, hard, or bad things. The problem is when we go immediately to the worst possible outcome. The problem is when “I’m sick” goes right to “I’m going to die soon,” or, “I messed up” goes right to “I’m about to lose my job.” That happens as our thoughts build on each other or are sustained over time, and our thoughts spin out of control and are out of proportion to the reality of the situation. The question in this post is what to do when our thoughts spin out of control that way. 

The War in Ukraine

On Thursday, February 24, 2022, early in the morning Eastern Standard Time, the Russian army did what many people expected, and yet everyone hoped wouldn’t happen. They invaded another sovereign nation, the nation of Ukraine. 

In the weeks since then, the war has been slow, terrible, and deadly. Nations are rallying around Ukraine with prayer. Governments are taking initial steps of sanctions against Russia. It is a war whose outcome is unknown at this point. Will Russia withdraw? Will other nations enter the war? Will nuclear weapons be used? Will Ukraine survive as a sovereign nation? And for us in this country, will we or our sons and daughters be called to duty? I was on a call today with two retired military chaplains and they both said their active-duty colleagues are “packing their bags.” Something more is coming, and it is unsettling to say the least. 

Keeping our Imaginations in Check

It would be easy to imagine the worst. It would be easy to imagine the United States being drawn into a war or Russia launching nuclear weapons. It is easy to imagine the already damaged national economy from the pandemic decisions getting even worse. I can’t say those things won’t happen, but I can say that we have little control over whether they do or don’t happen. I’m not saying I like that or there is nothing at all to do, but the big decisions that affect big outcomes are far beyond me and, likely, you. Since that is so, we can’t be consumed or anxious about something that we can’t personally control. Instead, we control what we can. In that way, we have a shot at keeping our imaginations in check and not making us “cuckoo,” as Wilson would say. 

Reformed theologian Reinhold Niebuhr is traditionally attributed with writing a prayer that helps keep our imaginations in check. It’s called The Serenity Prayer. It is worth reading the original version of it. 

The Serenity Prayer

God, give me grace 
to accept with serenity 
the things that 
cannot be changed, 
courage to change the things
which should be changed, 
and the wisdom to distinguish 
the one from the other.
Living one day at a time, 
enjoying one moment at a time, 
accepting hardship 
as a pathway to peace, 
taking, as Jesus did,
this sinful world as it is, 
not as I would have it,
trusting that you 
will make all things right, 
if I surrender to your will,
so that I may be 
reasonably happy in this life, 
and supremely happy with you
forever in the next. Amen.

The Remedy for Catastrophizing

Living the Serenity Prayer is one way to help keep our imaginations in check. Imaginations gone wild usually visualize impending catastrophe. Imaginations gone wild take a bit of truth and add a Chicken Little-like “the sky is falling” extremism. The remedy for this is to realize there are things over which we have no control and ask God for “serenity” about those things. For example, I am not in Congress nor am I the President of the United States, so I cannot personally make decisions that affect the war in Ukraine. I have no direct control. So, I ask God to give me serenity about these things and decisions that others, not I, are called to make. Perhaps the issue is news of a serious illness or disease. Again, I have little control over this, so rather than imagine myself in the grave, I will ask God for peace about the diagnosis and then control what I can control.

That is the second part. The first part of the Serenity Prayer is to “accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed.” The second part is to have “courage to change the things which should be changed.” I may not be able to affect policy decisions about the war or immediately change disease inside my body, but I can do something. I can write my congressperson, write the president, join with others to appeal larger policies. Or in the case of illness or disease, I can change my eating habits or line up the right doctors and do my part to fight the disease. 

Give Us This Day

In the end, what I am suggesting in the middle of these uncertain times is not passively sitting by, but rather to have the wisdom to know the difference between things we can control and those we can’t. If we can get there, if we can figure that out, we will find the reality of one of the phrases in the Lord’s Prayer to be a lived reality. We will be living in the moment, trusting God’s provision for the day. “Give us this day our daily bread.”

These are difficult times in which we are living, but they need not be debilitating. Not for us. We are people whose trust is in God. Rather than dwelling on the worst, dwell instead on the power of God, the things we can control, and trust God for the rest. 

May God help you navigate these days.

Rev. Dr. John Fullerton

Rev. Dr. John H. Fullerton, Jr.
Senior Pastor
Dr. Fullerton has served as our senior pastor since September 2019. Prior to Lakeland, he served churches in Scotland, Ohio, Tennessee, and, most recently, in Dunedin, Florida. While serving local churches, he has also taken leave to teach in theological seminaries in Madagascar and Russia. After earning his Bachelor of Science degree at the University of Florida, he worked in business for nine years. God then had other plans for his life that led him to Princeton Theological Seminary for a Master of Divinity and then ordination as a pastor. In 2010, he received his Doctor of Ministry degree from Fuller Theological Seminary. He grew up in a military home that took him all over the United States but considers Palatka, Florida, his hometown. He and his wife, Cile, have been married since 1983 and are proud parents of three daughters who have given them five grandchildren. His hobbies include reading, running, golf, and spending time with family.

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