By George Stahl
According to President Ronald Reagan in a speech he gave in 1986, the nine most terrifying words in the English language are, “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”
But there are two other words that can scare people maybe more than even those. They are the words ‘why’ and ‘what-if’. Just asking either one of them opens up a can of worms that, once unsealed, can be very hard— if not impossible— to get the lid back on.
Take the word ‘why’: When someone tells you something and you either don’t understand what they’re saying or don’t agree with it, or you simply want to know more about whatever it is they’re saying, you naturally ask, “Why?”
The other word— and according to Merriam-Webster it is one word even though it’s hyphenated— is ‘what-if’. ‘What-if’ is one of those open-ended questions that is in itself a hypothetical, and can have a million different answers. ‘What-if’ is as a real possibility for an alternative other than the one that is being represented as truth.
It is no secret that we are in a world of hurt, and in a hurtful world right now. People are at their brink; they have not had a real sense of relief in over seven months, and fuses are getting shorter. The words ‘why’ and ‘what-if’ are being tossed around more and more every day. Not just in the directions of the ones people see as being responsible for this mess, but the ‘whys’ and ‘what-ifs’ are being flung at neighbors, friends and strangers.
It could be the simplest thing, and we find ourselves getting caught up in asking, “Why would they do that?” or “Why on earth did he just say that to her? Better yet, why didn’t she say something back?”
Then something happens that affects us, and we don’t hesitate: “Why did you do that? Why didn’t you think about what would happen before you came over here and did that? Why don’t I come to your house and do that on your lawn?” Then, of course, the person you are having this barrage of ‘whys’ with snarls and quips back, “Why don’t you try it? Why don’t we see what happens if you do?” You look at him, size up the situation and humbly shrug your shoulders and say, “Why don’t we just forget it happened, and go on?” The burly, sweaty, soon to be off-the-clock construction worker on the crew running a new pipe down your side of the street walks over to you and stands in the sun, casting a shadow down on you, and says, “Why not? That sounds okay to me.” You shake hands and go back into your house, shaking your head and whispering, “Why did I do that? What-if he simply reached out and knocked my head off?”
I’m taking a guess here, but that word has probably been used a million times around the world since March 2020. “Why me?” “Why her/him?” “Why is God letting this happen?” “Why didn’t someone stop this a long time ago?” “Why doesn’t this end, now?” “Why can’t I get any help?”
That’s a lot of ‘whys’. As long as the coronavirus is with us— and killing people— the ‘whys’ will be with us. It’s human nature to want to know ‘why’ something happens. Everyone who ever invented something started with a ‘why’. Everyone who wrote something started their story with a ‘why’. Everyone who ever saw war, starvation, poverty or witnessed an injustice, had a ‘why’ on the tip of their tongue.
So where does the ‘what-if’ come in on all of this? People are starting to ask ‘what-if’ instead of ‘why’. Maybe not as quickly as the ‘why’ came out— but the ‘what-if’ could actually start to help make the situation more bearable, and maybe even help with our relationship anxiety. By asking ‘what-if’, we can come up with ways to use the social changes to our advantage. For example, one of the fasted-growing stocks on the market since COVID-19 is ZOOM. In March alone, when we were told to quarantine, the stock jumped 20% due to the increase in videoconferencing, family communications and general business use.
‘What-if’ employers see that having key personnel working from home is actually working for them? Tools like ZOOM will become permanent additions to those businesses.
Grocery deliveries increased as well. ‘What-if’ people continue with the service after COVID?
So, ‘what-if’ we invest a little in ZOOM? Why not? ‘What-if’ the changes we have seen since March continue after COVID? ‘What-if’ people have been doing these things for so long now that they have become a part of their everyday? ‘What-if’ some of them do not want to go back to things as they were before?
“Well, why would they want to do that?” you ask. ‘What-if’ they see these alternatives as living better than they were? They see no reason to return to the year before COVID. Fine, but ‘what-if’ some of us do? What does that mean for us? Nonsense! ‘Why’ on earth would that ever happen?
‘What-if’ we just say, “Why worry about it?” It’ll all be okay, right? Seems like those two little words really can be pretty scary after all