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Let's Say the Worst Happens: Imagination in the Face of Despair

My toddler is a sprinter. She also hates riding in carts. This means that, when we go to Target or the grocery store, she is either hanging on the bar of the cart like a monkey or delightedly sprinting up and down the aisles. This is fine with me; running errands after daycare pickup is one of our favorite things to do together, and I love that she has found ways to enjoy it.

On our most recent trip to Target, however, things went a little wrong.

I was just wrapping up at the self-checkout when my daughter started sprinting toward the exit. I called out to her to stop, but she just giggled as she sailed past the first set of automatic doors. She kept running. The second set of automatic doors was about to open; she was about to have a clear shot straight into the parking lot. In a sudden panic, I abandoned my cart and took off sprinting after her.

I caught up to her in time, grabbing her by the shoulder to halt her escape and pulling her to safety on the sidewalk. I hugged her tight and tried to explain why the parking lot is dangerous—but she’s only two and a half, so I know most of what I said didn’t sink in. Then I took her hand, and we collected our purchases and went to the park. It was one of those big parenting moments that happens, and you just deal with it, and then you move on with your day.

That night, though, as I lay in bed, my leg aching from the muscle I had pulled in my desperate dash, the image of my daughter running through the automatic doors returned. Every time I closed my eyes, all I could see was my beautiful toddler being run over by a car, her little body slamming into the pavement and then disappearing under the nose of some huge pickup truck. After about the tenth time of this nightmarish scene playing out in my mind, I knew I had to do something to stop it, or I was never going to be able to sleep.

So, I did the only thing I could think of: I imagined the scene again, the red pickup roaring up, my daughter scampering right in front of it—only this time, I imagined that I got there first, that I slammed my hands into the hood of the truck and stopped it with sheer brute strength, like a superhero. I imagined that my hands left dents in the truck, that my heels dug grooves into the asphalt. I imagined that I saved my daughter, and scooped her up and kissed her, a little shaken but also thrumming with adrenaline and power.

It was a silly thing to imagine, perhaps, a visualization fueled by one too many Marvel movies. But it did the trick. The frightening scene faded from my mind almost instantly, my body relaxed, and sleep came soon after. The next morning, the images were no longer haunting me. My imagination had released me from my fear.

Our imaginations are powerful weapons.

Sometimes, imagination will fight in your favor, as it did with me that night—but there are also moments when your anxiety will grab your imagination by the hand and the two of them will run off together, leaving you rigid with panic or caught in frantic cognitive loops of worst-case-scenario catastrophizing. I’ve struggled with this particular blend of high anxiety and a vivid imagination for my entire life, but becoming a parent has made it ten times worse. Now, it’s not just my life I have to worry about. The stakes are so much higher.

When our mental diets are fed by a steady stream of anxiety-producing information, it’s hard to combat the fear, and hard to keep it from impacting our day-to-day lives or our relationships. Living well in the world in its current state requires a level of mental fortitude and discipline that most of us can’t sustain every day. To stay responsibly informed but to keep out of the paralyzing or frenzying grip of fear is a difficult feat. I don’t know if there is necessarily more out there than can hurt us or our families than in past centuries—but certainly, we know more about it, and are confronted daily with massive overdoses of images and information to remind us of all the danger. This is a terrible way to live.

In a graduate-level course on treating anxiety and depression, I learned that anxiety disorders multiplied in the 60s and 70s because the Vietnam War was the first war to be broadly televised in America, and the grisly images and growing death count that filled living rooms every evening were too much for people’s nervous systems. And you know what mental health providers’ treatment of choice was for these media-induced anxiety disorders fifty years ago? Turning off the TV.

We could probably do with a little more of that treatment today.

One of my greatest struggles as a parent is choosing hope over fear.

The other night, I was sitting on the front steps enjoying some ice cream with my daughter. I started flipping through unopened emails on my phone. A number of them were daily updates on current events. In a matter of moments, I had scrolled through articles on mounting gun violence and mass shootings, on the perilously fragile state of our economy as Congress runs out of time to resolve the debt ceiling crisis, on increasing anti-trans legislation, on the ongoing brutal war in the Ukraine, and on our planet’s quiet approach to a point of no return in regards to climate change. It was basically all of my worst fears rolled into the same four minutes.

I looked up from my phone at my daughter. She had chocolate ice cream on her face, and she was jumping and twirling in the driveway, her blond curls bouncing around her ears, her eyes bright with joy. I started to cry. In that moment, my heart was filled with such deep grief over the world she’s been given to live in, all the dangers I can’t protect her from, all the ways her life will look different from the life I want for her, and all the losses she will experience outside of my control. I felt so afraid for her.

Of that long list of horrible things, I think it was climate change that hit the hardest in that moment. Perhaps it’s because this is the issue that makes me feel the most helpless, and seems to have the widest reaching implications. Many of my Millennial peers—most of them in their 30s, well into their careers but often struggling to own homes or save for retirement—are choosing not to have children. The two most cited reasons I hear for this are that they can’t afford to have a family, or that they can’t bear to bring children into a world that’s on the brink of disaster due to climate change. While I do not believe that everyone must or should have children, I long to live in a world that is safe enough for everyone who wants to have children to do so without hesitation. To see so many people who would make wonderful parents turning away from that path because of their despair about the state of the Earth is heartbreaking for me.

But sitting there on my front steps, watching my daughter twirl and wondering if she will live to see cities drown and countries burn, I suddenly understood. For just an instant, I doubted my decision to create a new life.

Is it our job to protect our children from all harm?

Or is it our job to raise children who will work to transform patterns of harm into patterns of healing?

My first thought as I sat on the front steps was one of pure escapism. Caught in my anxiety, I reached for a way out: I imagined a portal opening right there in the driveway, a portal to another world where my daughter could grow up in perfect safety, with a guarantee of an untroubled future. This dream collapsed in on itself within moments. It was too unrealistic. (To be clear, it’s not the existence of other worlds that I find unrealistic; it’s the idea of other worlds existing without pain or suffering that I can’t envision.) So I gathered my imagination and my hope, and I tried again.

Let’s say the worst happens. Let’s say everything goes wrong. Let’s say humankind destroys the planet, and all that’s left is a scorched, post-apocalyptic wasteland dotted with traumatized survivors. Let’s say I can’t protect my daughter from any of it, and this is the only future she has.

What then?

I have a choice. I can either let my despair and powerlessness infiltrate my daughter’s vulnerable young heart as she grows up, wounding her with my regret and desolation. Or, I can find some way to hang onto hope, agency, and enough internal locus of control to teach her that her life matters and she can still make a difference. I can teach her how to face hardship with the resilience of a calm body and an alert mind. I can teach her how to love well, how to strive for balance between the needs of the few and the many, how to guard the weak and protect the innocent. I can teach her how to hold onto hope.

And the best way I can teach her these things is to embody them myself.

As her mother, my responsibility is to live out my values in front of her. Do I face my stressors and struggles with a calm body and an alert mind? Do I consider the needs of the many when I shop, when I plan my budget, when I vote, when I work? Do I feed the hungry, embrace the lonely, and protect the children, or do I only feed, embrace, and protect my own? Do I share my resources out of an abundance mindset, or do I hoard them out of a fear of scarcity? This is how she will learn what matters—what will still matter, even if the world ends. And perhaps, if enough children learn what matters, if enough people keep a tenacious grip on hope and allow it to change the way they live, the world won’t end after all. Perhaps, we will save one another.

And that world—the kind of world where people understand that their good is caught up in the good of all others, rather than something they can only have at the expense of others—that is the kind of world I want for my daughter. It’s true; some days, it’s hard to imagine. But that is what imagination is for. Imagination is a courageous and creative act, a move of defiance in the face of despair, a gift of being human.

So let’s breathe through the fear. Let’s imagine a better world. Let’s teach our children they can make it happen—because if they believe it, maybe they can.

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