If One Little Question Could Change Your Life, Would You Dare Ask It?

New Year’s resolutions almost always fail. But not because they’re too big. They fail because they’re too small. This year, real change might begin with one tiny question and two little words and a lot of daring…

New Year's Resolution

Photo Credit: Scalino via Compfight cc

On a Saturday afternoon in November, my wife was in a car accident. After the police and paramedics and tow trucks, we returned home and I left messages with all the appropriate agencies. I went to work on Monday morning and by the time I arrived home Monday night, I had five voicemails on my home phone from various agents, saying they would try to reach me again the next day.

The same thing happened on Tuesday, and I wondered how I would ever connect with these people while I was at work.

Frustrated, I decided to change the outgoing message on the home phone, instructing the agents to call my cell. So I opened the voicemail setting on the iPhone that had served as our home phone for about six months, and I went about recording a new message.

On an iPhone.

(momentary confusion)

My home phone is an iPhone.

(dawning awareness)

It’s an iPhone and it isn’t attached to a wall or a base station. It can go, literally, anywhere.

(giddy wonder)

My home phone can go to work with me!

(exultation!)

Sometimes the simplest, most elegant, most life-changing solutions are right in front of our noses. But we can’t see them, because we are locked in to old ways of experiencing ourselves and the world.

Schemas

A schema is a mental framework that helps organize and interpret information in the world around us. Schemas are the lens through which we see everything, and they are necessary and good. They allow us to make quick calculations—to get to certain conclusions—without doing the same mental work every time.  A strange man leaning out of his car window offering a little girl a candy bar is a schema. Schemas are essential when we need to act quickly and decisively.

But schemas can also be a problem, because sometimes they’re outdated. Like my home-phones-are-attached-to-a-wall-and-must-stay-at-home schema. It’s a stored set of rules that no longer applies.

Or worse, some of our schemas were never correct in the first place:

skinny is beautiful,

to be loved I have to keep everyone satisfied,

success is defined by the size of my bank account,

I’m a good parent if my kids are happy,

other people get to decide my worth,

rainy days are bad days.

And the big problem with schemas is they are powerful. So if they’re outdated—or if they were never correct in the first place—they actually keep us disconnected from reality. They limit our freedom and undermine our creativity. When we sense something more in ourselves and we yearn for life to be bigger, schemas are like shackles on our hearts.

They are like non-existent phone chords tethering us to imaginary walls.

The Two-Word Schema Buster

I think 2014 could be a big year for all of us. Because I think it could be the year we all look in the mirror and stop seeing ourselves as old rotary dial phones tethered to outdated or false ways of seeing ourselves and the world around us. And I wonder if the way to make this quantum leap is to ask one little question:

What if?

What if it isn’t our job to keep everyone around us happy? What if we can’t be everything to everyone and that is still good enough? What if we really are free to choose a family, rather than remaining bound to a biological family that wounds us every time? What if some rules really were made to be broken? What if we don’t have to stay in a career we’ve loathed for a decade? What if we don’t have to remain even one more day in an abusive relationship? What if, instead of staring at the numbers on the scale, we tossed the thing in the garbage, and threw away our self-loathing with it? What if we canceled our cable subscription and used the free time to start a movement?

Two years ago, I began to discover the power of this question, when I asked:

What if I started a blog, even though I’ve never written a word?

What if therapists don’t have to be as opaque and hidden as I’ve always been told?

What if I transformed a bunch of blog posts into an eBook about marriage?

What if this blog community began to meet each other face-to-face in video Hangouts?

What if I began to work on a full-length book?

What if?

And here we are.

Blowing up schemas is scary—there’s all sorts of learning to do and almost no guarantees anything will work out the way we want it to. But that may bring us to the most important “what if” of all: What if our plans working out is not nearly as important as our hearts coming out?

Isn’t freedom always a little terrifying?

Mud Pies and Holidays at Sea

C.S. Lewis wrote, “We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

What if we quit settling for making better mud pies in the slum?

What if we began to receive the infinite joy always being offered to us?

What if we decided to set out for a holiday at the sea?

What if we started to ask ourselves, “What if?”

Maybe, just maybe, we’d cease to be half-hearted creatures who are far too easily pleased. Maybe we’d become whole-hearted creatures untethered from the walls of our lives, living with freedom in the world according to the desires planted by love in our heart of hearts.

What if?

Question: What if? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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DON’T MISS THIS GUEST POST: Click here to read my guest post this week at Disney’s Babble.com: “3 Ways Frozen Subverts the Usual Fairy Tale Rules.” I wrote it because I want my daughter to know she’s more than a princess; she’s a kingdom builder, too. It’s a good lead-in for next Wednesday’s post, “Words From a Father to His Daughter (From the Make-up Aisle).”

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DON’T MISS THE NEXT VIDEO HANGOUT: This Sunday, January 12, at 2pm CST, we will discuss the questions you asked for last time: “What are the characteristics of people who are most likely to support you becoming more your true self, and how do you lean on those people for support, while not becoming dependent upon their approval or affirmation?” If you aren’t already on the mailing list for Video Hangouts, click on “update subscription preferences” below and check the box for Video Hangouts.

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 Audio: Click here to hear an audio version of this post

Next Post: Words from a Father to His Daughter (From the Makeup Aisle) ”

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Disclaimer: My writings represent a combination of my own personal opinions and my professional experiences, but they do not reflect professional advice. Interaction with me via the blog does not constitute a professional therapeutic relationship. For professional and customized advice, you should seek the services of a counselor who can dedicate the hours necessary to become more intimately familiar with your specific situation. I do not assume liability for any portion or content of material on the blog and accept no liability for damage or injury resulting from your decision to interact with the website.

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Sing

    Slightly more than one year back, I asked the “What if” question. Six months ago, i quit as a teacher and a month back, i came to Europe and started my new life at 49-going-on-50 as a student pursuing my PhD. Scary question to ask but, life is to be lived.

    • Diana

      Congratulations and good luck! 🙂

      • drkellyflanagan

        “Scary question to ask, but life is to be lived.” The matter of fact way you say that gives me goose bumps. Congratulations on the audacious “What if?” you are living!

  • Guest

    Old saying (although I am not sure who it attributable to) ….WHAT WOULD YOU DO TODAY IF YOU KNEW YOU COULD NOT FAIL??

  • Guest

    Old saying (although I am not sure who it is attributable to) WHAT WOULD ATTEMPT TO DO TODAY IF YOU KNEW YOU COULD NOT FAIL??

    • Colleen Shields

      LOVE that saying! Have a plaque of it at home in my office – great reminder of what we can become (anything we truly desire).

      • drkellyflanagan

        Never heard it before and I’ll never forget it again. Thanks for this!

  • Colleen Shields

    Yes! Becoming conscious of our prescribed, enculturated and/or Self-adopted schematic paradigms is the first step to gaining freedom from the ‘shackles on our hearts’. To follow through with appropriate action takes sheer bravery; verifying the old addage: ‘As a man/woman/child thinketh, so are they’.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Colleen, I think you got the spirit of the post in a way that I didn’t even articulate. Thinking my word for 2014 will be “freedom.”

  • Tracy

    Two years ago I asked myself, “What if I went back to school to get my master’s degree in Psychology?” I was 43 years old and had been a teacher for 18 years. There were a lot of “what if’s” along the way…what if I just looked at master’s programs online…what if I sent in applications…what if I get in…? I’m a few months away from graduation and although it has been tough, I’m glad I followed my “what if!”

    • drkellyflanagan

      Amazing, Tracy! Thank you for sharing your “What if?” with the rest of us. It is en-couragement to all of us!

  • Maymuna

    Your articles have never failed to amaze me Sir! I always think about how good you are with words, and how you always know the words that would capture and other human,s heart.

    I was trying not to break down and cry as I read your words, but what if I didn’t try to stop my tears from runing down? What if I embraced that moment of vulnerability? I guess I didn’t want to have to stop reading your beautiful words:)

    • drkellyflanagan

      Ha! Yes, Maymuna. What if we allowed ourselves the tears and the vulnerability? Much transformation lies in that direction.

  • karen Eisele

    As I read your post yesterday I gazed over at my 6 year old granddaughter as she curled up with the dog that she “talked ” me into. A lap sized dog just her size. I wondered then “What if i had made different decisions in the past would my life had been any different” 40 years ago I was a victim of a violent crime and as you can imagine my schemas were very distorted. It took a while but finally a freind asked me a question “What if you didn’t give this event power” “What would it be like if you stopped letting what happened to you define you” What if…. The what if turned into action and I was able to move on and creat a life that I am happy with even with the struggles. Life was never meant to be stagnant and and there is no magic formula to tell us how to proceed. We might not be able to change everything we want to but we can challenge ourselves to imagine what can happen if we change the things we can or attempt something new or change our schemas. You have to live with yourself longer than with anyone else so might as well find what makes you content. Sometimes we need to see our fears as motivators.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Karen, I so much enjoy getting bits and pieces of your life story. “You have to live with yourself longer than with anyone else.” Ha! I never thought of it that way. I, for one, and am glad your friend asked “what if?” You’re too valuable to be defined by that.

  • Amy

    I’ve always been proud of my ability to ask “What if” and then do that thing. I asked “What if” and ended up living with my beautiful wife in New Zealand. I asked “What if” and left behind a career that was killing me for something that would make me happy. I just realized I have many other areas I need to question myself in. “What if” I worked on finishing my novel instead of zoning out to some stupid TV show? “What if” I didn’t have that pastry and instead went for a walk? Thanks for making me question again.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Fantastic, Amy. I love your courage! Check in again and let us know what happens when you start writing again and walking more, okay?

  • Hilerly

    Thank you for writing so poetically and realistically every week. You have never ceased to write something that captures how I feel during the week that I couldn’t figure out. I know that many of the things you write are very open for everyone to relate, but they touch me every week regardless. I’m currently 20 and trying (struggling) to break free of the youth culture that everyone has bought into and figuring out exactly what I want from life and into adulthood. But, it seems like there are always people, circumstances that tie me back to this seemingly toxic place in life everyone else is in that I can’t break free of. I keep trying to make changes but they never seem to stick because I feel a sense of responsibility for those I leave behind and somehow always come running back. You give me direction and hope to make the right choices for myself and to one day soon break free and find my own way away from everyone else. Thank you.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Hilerly, you are very welcome. It sounds to me like you are wise beyond your years. Continue to pursue the freedom you desire, and be patient with yourself along the way.

  • Andrea

    Bahhh!!! What if I let go of my life of fear and shame and guilt. I know what is underneath it all and I can’t wait to let it out. If only I could, my world and the world around me would be a better place. I just know it. Peace, love & thanks to you for your encouraging and raw words.