Never mind what was. What’s next?

by Kristin on March 14, 2011

in Culture, ideas & paradigms

Photo by Phillie Casablanca

“OK, what’s next?”

If you’re a fan of the TV series The West Wing, you might recognize that phrase as the mantra of the show’s fictional US president, Josiah Bartlett. He says it repeatedly, often impatiently—What’s next?—in a manner that’s often dismissive and abrupt, but also admirable. He doesn’t want to dwell on the past, or even on what might be consuming his staff in the present moment. He wants to point his eyes and feet forward, and keep moving.

Jason and I both watched most of The West Wing’s 154 episodes individually, before we met, so we recently decided to start over with Season I, and watch them together. In an early Season II episode, comprising many flashbacks to Bartlet and his staff on the campaign trail, I found myself cringing as he interrupted one person after another with “What’s next?”

I cringed, because I could empathize with those staff members. I’m that person, wanting to focus on what just went wrong and analyze it, wanting to mourn what happened months ago and wallow in it, licking my wounds. I want to hit the pause button on life’s endless treadmill, catch my breath, take another longing look over my shoulder, and reassess.

To look ahead is to give regret a kick in the teeth

Of course, the very things that make me respond with cringes to Bartlet’s headlong, forward-marching approach are the things that make me admire it: I lack that type of momentum and fortitude. When life gives me a sidelong swipe, the wind gets knocked out of me and I want to lie there longer than I probably need to, faking an injury worse than the one I got.

I’m not suggesting that history isn’t important—we definitely need to examine it and learn from it. I just know I have a tendency to become bogged down and consumed by “what was” in a way that doesn’t ultimately deliver wisdom and insight for “what’s next.”

When I forget to ask “What’s next?” I am usually choosing to focus on anger, blame and regret; when I’m willing to lift up my head, open my eyes and ask “What’s next?” I am choosing to claim momentum and hope. It’s a willingness to trust that something good can be ahead, no matter what disappointment seems to be blocking my path.

Learning to welcome winds of change

I’m not ready to go into details, but I really need to claim the promise of “What’s next?” in my life right now. To be honest, a big part of me longs to climb into bed and pull the covers over my head for several days, even weeks.

But there’s another feeling that’s gaining ground in my soul. It’s a stirring of hope reminding me not to fear the winds of change, because, as I wrote in that post, “I should know by now that when my life shifts in a way that seems bad, I should prepare myself for something good.”

I’m going to do my best to lift my head, claim that truth, and ask “What’s next?”

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  • Dan J

    A wonderful post, as always. :)

    One thing that jumped out at me:

    …anger, blame and regret…

    I think you’re on to something with that. Those are the things that can prevent us from learning from events in our lives. They keep us bogged down and prevent us from moving ahead. Yeas, we need to learn from our past, but dwelling on it, particularly the sad or terrible things that have affected us, definitely doesn’t help.

    Don’t worry about why you need to deal with something; just go ahead and deal with it.

  • Ashley Jennings

    YES! KT be prepared for something good! That’s what I am trying to remind myself as my husband is gone for three months for work. Thanks for posting!


  • Kirstin

    “What’s next?” I like that! I’ve been trying hard to school myself to focus on what I DO accomplish in a day, rather than what I intend (and generally fail) to do. The focus-on-failure is so ingrained a habit that it takes a lot of thought to get myself to turn in the other direction and look forward–but I’m so much happier when I do! It sounds like you’re trying to move past something bigger, though, which is harder to do–those things can exert a magnetic pull.

    If a few smaller “what’s nexts?” would help counteract its force, let’s get in touch about another coffee.

  • The Modern Gal

    I’m so much like you in this regard — whenever life knocks me over, I want to wallow and dwell on it for a while. But you’re right about life surprising you with good things when you fear the worse about change.

    I hope you find a rewarding answer when you ask, ‘What’s next?’

  • Kristin T.

    Dan, yeah, the words “anger, blame, regret” do sort of raise some red flags, don’t they? :) I like how you’ve separated the “why” you need to deal with something from the act of just dealing with it. That’s exactly what I need to do. Thanks for your encouragement.

    Ashley, wow, three months is a long time to be apart! Being open to the possibility of good things—from the new ways your relationship can grow over the distance to the ways you might develop who you are through solitude—is a much better approach than just dreading the inevitable. I admire your perspective!

    Kirstin, I’m sorry you’re afflicted with some of the same issues I deal with, but I have to say, it’s nice to know I’m not alone! It’s a discipline, isn’t it—a matter of undoing old habits. Little by little we’ll get there.

    The Modern Gal, thanks for understanding and cheering for me! I am feeling hopeful, but I guess expectancy and impatience go hand-in-hand.

  • Forest

    Thanks for the good reminder (and via a TV series that I LOVE!) I’m really really focusing these days on trying to focus more on ‘now’ and on one thing at a time. So, ‘what’s next’ is a nice reminder to me – so this morning I’m now going to start my day and instead of being overwhelmed by everything i didn’t get done yesterday or freaking out with the pile of things to do, I’m just going to pick one thing, do it and then ask myself ‘what’s next’ and do the next thing. Hopefully that will get me through the day without too much stress – or the unproductivity that sometimes comes from not just simply being able to focus on what the next step is. Okay…i’m off to the next thing in my day!

  • Katie

    I definitely tend to lick my wounds, too – sometimes to the point of ignoring what’s next. While I don’t believe we should dismiss the past, it’s a great reminder not to dwell in it – but to look ahead with anticipation.

  • Stacey

    Yep, that’s me – the wound-licker. I’ve been focused on too many things that happened in the past than trying to make things happen. Time to shift the focus to the front and move ahead, because no one gets ahead by looking behind :)

    Thanks for this :)

  • Kristin T.

    Forest, that sounds like a great plan! Have you read Anne Lamott’s book about writing, “Bird By Bird?” The title comes from an experience she had as a kid, trying to write a report about birds and feeling completely overwhelmed. Her dad showed her how to tackle it one bird at a time. It’s a basic concept but it’s really stuck with me. (And yes—West Wing is such a great show. The particular episode I’m referencing is the 2nd one in the 2nd season.)

    Katie, as with everything else, it’s a matter of balance, isn’t it? Self-care is important, and sometimes we do need to stop and give ourselves a break to catch our breath. The trick is not to get bogged down or stuck in that place. Anticipation—expectancy—is key.

    Stacey, we should all start a wound-licker club! OK, maybe not. Maybe a Wound Lickers Anonymous group. :) Anyway, I’m glad you could relate and might have found inspiration to keep moving forward. Thanks for your comment!

  • Ray Hollenbach

    You’ve got plenty of responses so you probably don’t need me to tell you that this is a fine post. But I need to say it out of sheer appreciation. Keep fighting the good fight and keep on kicking regret in the teeth. (And oh: keep this post handy because there are days when we will all need to read it again)

  • ed cyzewski

    Sometimes the “what’s next?” question can be a tough one I don’t want to face. You are certainly not alone here. Our “what’s next?” question could land us in Columbus, OH of all places!!! Sheesh! However, the last time that question landed us in Connecticut, we were pleasantly surprised, so we’ll see!

  • Kristin T.

    Ray, thanks—I always like hearing “fine post” from you. :) I’m glad I have so many wise, hopeful cohorts to accompany me as we fight the good fight.

    ed, you’re right, there’s dwelling on something and then there’s denial, which can always be a problem. So…Columbus, eh? I’m a fan of the Midwest—there’s much to be pleasantly surprised by.

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