What if…? begs for creativity. It is an invitation to ask more questions and to envision possibilities. And in doing so, it allows us all to reframe current reality. But it is worth noting that there are also different ways and situations in which the question can be asked.
In the world of catastrophes, both natural and man-made, analytical modelers and insurers try to quantify the likelihood of different kinds of disasters happening, the ways in which they could take place and the amount of damage they could inflict. The thought is that if hypothetical scenarios are given some attention, risks can be managed. The sad truth is that we are conditioned to think in terms of what we already know and so, truly envisioning the infinite possibilities of what could happen that has never happened before or that which has but under a different set of circumstances than in the past leaves room for unimagined risks. When Hurricane Katrina and the terrorism of 9/11 hit, they were unfathomable.
But when we take that same question, What if…? and use it positively, we can find ourselves in worlds of wonder. The first TEDxPeachtree (recently renamed TEDxAtlanta) event I attended was based on the theme “What if…?” and presenters spoke on specific questions they themselves had come up with. “What if you could paint on water,” asked Amy Lee Segami, while Josh Elder posed, “What if we brought comic books into the classroom and it changed everything?” Other questions touched on science, tech, health, and helping those in disaster zones (see the full playlist here.) The point was to provoke attendees to consider possibilities and perhaps even create their own alternative ways to think about or do things. We walked out of there energized.
When little children ask “why?” their curiosity (and their dearth of knowledge about how things do work) means their questions are just as wonderful, if not a bit more fanciful, than the thinkers trying to solve problems and create new realities. Randall Munroe, in his blog and 2014 book What if? uses science to answer reader questions. In doing so, he grounds the balloons of imagination in the world of truth. In today’s era of technological advancement and crowdsourcing solutions, I see every day as an opportunity to ask “What if…” and fully expect someone to find an answer.
But first, it is important to ask those questions.
This month, musician Craig Taubman’s lead up to Rosh Hashana, Jewels of Elul, is back. Every day during this reflective period, he brings curated stories, poems, essays from different corners of the Jewish universe; this year, contributors have been asked to answer the question, “What if…?” Some answer lightly, others with more gravitas. With each writer, we see a different approach to answering the question. “Elul 7: For My Sins,” from Ellie Schneir, for instance, whose son ended his life seven years ago at age 14, was beyond heartbreaking. Beating ourselves up over things we can never know for decisions we never made is a burden parents should never have to bear.
Elul 9: Dayeinu, by Abby Stein, a Jewish transgender activist and former Hasid, declares that entertaining these “what if”s helps no one. “We, as fragile human beings,” she writes, “are the sum total of our experiences. This is a fact, whether you look at it from a scientific or spiritual lens. If any small part of our experience would’ve been different, the person we know today simply wouldn’t exist, the person I live today would not exist.”
For myself, instead of looking backwards, I prefer to take the question towards the future, and see in it the possibilities of the kinds of world we can build. What if you were to do the same?