What If?

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM June 6, 2021

It’s in my DNA.

I can trace it back to my great grandmother, whom I never met. She and her family survived Ireland’s Great Famine of the mid-1800’s, a time of starvation and disease, the deaths of a million people and the exodus of a million more. She left County Mayo and emigrated to the United States, taking her heritage and the memory of those bleak times with her.

Her daughter, my grandmother, never knew that terrible hunger and poverty but she often heard stories about it around the kitchen table in Pennsylvania. So even though my grandmother had never personally experienced the same terrible want of the previous generation, she carried the collective memory of those brutal days. She carried the deep knowing, passed down through her relatives, that the ground under her feet was not as solid as some said, that a happy and comfortable life could be upended in a second. She carried worry and anxiety. And she passed it on to me and my family through our blood and bone, through our ancestral DNA, as the Smith/Koellhoffer Worry Gene, or the “What If?” syndrome.

Will my family’s health concerns improve? Will my community flourish in the future? Will I make my connecting flight? Will the Internet connection hold during my Zoom retreat? Will our beautiful planet survive? What if our country continues to be divided? What if my worst fears are realized? What if the choice I’m making today doesn’t turn out as I hoped? What if I fail? What if my dreams don’t come true?

Are you noticing a pattern here? All of these worries are about things largely beyond our control and largely in the future. We can work and plan and think of every eventuality—and many of us are pretty good at that—but ultimately, these efforts can take us only so far. Life is in flux and there are so many variables to consider.

So what to do? We might voice our concerns to a counselor, therapist, or supportive friend or family. We might follow a practice of allowing ourselves a specific, limited time, say twenty minutes a day, to do all our worrying—with no worrying allowed for the remaining twenty three hours and forty minutes of that day. We might enter into a practice of breathprayer as a way to center ourselves and steady our breathing. We might engage in Shinrin Yoku, the practice of tree bathing, taking slow walks in a forest and breathing in the gift of oxygen and tranquility.

We might repeat a mantra to remind ourselves that the Holy One is with us, accompanies us in our anxiety, and never abandons us.
Psalm 121: “I lift my eyes to the mountains. Where does my strength come from? My strength comes from God, who made heaven and earth.”
Isaiah 49:15-16: “Can a mother forget the infant at her breast or walk away from the baby she bore? But even if a mother forgets, I will never forget you. I’ve written your name on the palm of my hands.”  
Psalm 16:1:  “Keep me safe, O God. You are my hope.”

On an intellectual level, we know that nothing will be changed by our worrying and, in fact, much energy can be given over to the “What ifs” for which there is no satisfactory answer. May we reflect on the wisdom of Mary Oliver, who sounds as if she might have carried a similar worry gene in her own DNA, but who learned to sing it away:

Chris Koellhoffer

I Worried
Mary Oliver

I worried a lot. Will the garden grow, will the rivers
flow in the right direction, will the earth turn
as it was taught, and if not how shall
I correct it?
Was I right, was I wrong, will I be forgiven,
can I do better?
Will I ever be able to sing, even the sparrows
can do it and I am, well,
Is my eyesight fading or am I just imagining it,
am I going to get rheumatism,
lockjaw, dementia?
Finally, I saw that worrying had come to nothing.
And gave it up. And took my old body
and went out into the morning,
and sang.

Sit in stillness with the Holy One.
Bring to God whatever worry or anxiety or concern weighs most heavily on your heart at this moment.
Make an act of trust that the Holy One is with you in your anxiety, that the Holy One accompanies you in this moment and beyond.
Offer your thanks for the gift of God’s presence.

Featured Image: Noah Buscher, Unsplash

Please hold in your prayer all who will be part of this upcoming event:

June 6-13:  Guided retreat for the Sisters of the Holy Spirit and of Mary Immaculate, San Antonio, Texas

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6 thoughts on “What If?”

  1. Thank you so much, Chris.
    It is all to easy for me to let the “what ifs” run wild.
    I will share my fears and concerns with LOVE and live each day in Love and trust.

  2. Thank you…so good to hear and read abt others who encounter this enemy…using all the spiritual “tools”…just doesnt cut it…maybe just relaxing in the “your just exactly where I have placed you”…is enough..

  3. Another ‘Godwin’s’ of a read, at the perfect time. God’s timing is perfect. Thank you for sharing, Sr. Chris.

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