"So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance."

- Franklin D. Roosevelt's first inaguaral address (1932)

Last month, for our annual visit to see my folks in NY/NJ, we decided to save a thousand bucks by driving (rather than flying) from Illinois with our two kids, aged 8 and 3.

Maybe for some families this type of (sixteen hour) road trip is kind of fun and even brings them closer together. In our case, it only brought us closer to a divorce and child abandonment (at the side of a road, let's say, hypothetically, a random road in some town in Pennsylvania that seemed to specialize in drug trafficking and cute brownstones).

Without going into the harrowing details of the trip there, let me just say that upon arrival, the thought of having to drive back with my husband and children a week later was so dreadful, that I would have been willing to empty our savings account and max out our credit cards if only there had been a service that would fly our car (and us) back to Illinois.

Plane carrying automobile

photo by creativecow.net

It's not that our tale was significantly worse than those recounted by veteran road-trip warriors over a cold brewsky (or a double skinny mocha hold the whip, if that's more your style). It's just that having (barely) survived it one-way, the idea of having to re-live it on the way back was too much for me to bear. Instead of enjoying the lively commotion of family around me, I felt myself sinking into anticipatory angst.

I am referring here to a state of anxiety and despair brought on by the belief that I have all the information I need to predict a future I dread.

Rather than spurring me into action, guiding me towards more intentional choices, or leading me to shift my plans in order to improve future outcomes, anticipatory angst leaves me much like an insect stuck in viscous amber resin, simultaneously immobilized and caught in the past.

Insect trapped in amber

photo by Rothamstead Research

Quite often, the frightening future from which I cower turns out to be quite tame once it catches up with me.

This time was no exception. The dreaded trip back (from NY to Illinois) was far better than our journey forth. Somehow, with no additional planning or preparation, we had gotten into a smooth rhythm that allowed us to travel "quickly" and without incident.

All that pain (mine and my husband's!) - and for naught...

I take a deep breath and allow myself to mourn. I mourn for all the lost hours I have spent suffering needlessly in the voluptuous caverns of my own mind. I mourn for all the life around me that I have missed while wandering those echoing chambers.

Then, after I have felt the weight of my disappointment, sadness and exhaustion, and after I have given myself some much needed love in the face of my human imperfection, I turn my gaze forwards.

I imagine catching myself the next time I begin to shrink at the prospect of something that is yet to happen. I imagine reminding myself that there are too many variables for me to really know how it's going to go. One tiny change, impossible for me to predict at this moment, can shift the course of events so the outcome is completely different than I imagine. I may seem to be standing still, but the flow of life continues to change constantly around me, so that the past is not the great predictor of the future I believe it to be.

Then, I imagine saying to myself, "Maybe this time will be different."

But seriously. Who am I kidding? Can I really stop myself from falling into the familiar trap of anticipatory angst when the grooves towards that destination are so well worn? When I am the queen of present perfect tension?

And then, I feel it.

A blossoming sense of celebration. A temporary grasp of that for which I long. A recognition that yes, although I have done it this way so many times in the past, maybe this time will be different.


Copyright Elaine Shpungin 2010

Elaine Shpungin, Ph.D. enjoys enjoys writing about her "peacemeal" attempts to create harmony one choice at a time. At the moment, she is a student of Nonviolent Communication (NVC) and Restorative Circles (RC), a budding writer, a humbled parent, a work-in-progress romantic partner, and a director of a psychology training clinic for doctoral students in Clinical/Community Psychology.

About the Author

Elaine Shpungin Ph.D.

Elaine Shpungin, Ph.D., is the director of the University of Illinois Psychological Services Center.

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