Nasty Nighttime Whatifs

by Richelle Wright on August 2, 2013


We all know – and have probably told (at least once, or more, if I’m honest) – one of those classic missionary horror stories about traffic cop corruption or bugs or snakes or exotic parasites or nauseating food. People almost seem to expect that. Well, at least they do some of the time.

But so do I. At the very least I’ll often find myself leaning that way whether or not I end up acting on those leanings…

It’s easier.

It’s easier because I mostly came to terms with those critters and the bizarre-ness and frustrating irritating-ness of missionary life and just having to deal with it nearly forever ago …or at least it seems that way.

But it is much easier to share those stories than it is to talk about the really nasty critters – the ones that thread into your thoughts, grab hold of your heart and infiltrate your imaginations when you wonder about the future or relive the past, mulling over what you could have done differently or done better.  Shel Silverstein, definitely among my favorite authors for children, penned a poem that still echoes around in my mind, ever since a first reading many years ago. It has stuck, even though it isn’t one of my favorites – probably because it strikes a little too close to home.


Last night, while I lay thinking here,
some Whatifs crawled inside my ear
and pranced and partied all night long
and sang their same old Whatif song:
Whatif I’m dumb in school?
Whatif they’ve closed the swimming pool?
Whatif I get beat up?
Whatif there’s poison in my cup?
Whatif I start to cry?
Whatif I get sick and die?
Whatif I flunk that test?
Whatif green hair grows on my chest?
Whatif nobody likes me?
Whatif a bolt of lightning strikes me?
Whatif I don’t grow taller?
Whatif my head starts getting smaller?
Whatif the fish won’t bite?
Whatif the wind tears up my kite?
Whatif they start a war?
Whatif my parents get divorced?
Whatif the bus is late?
Whatif my teeth don’t grow in straight?
Whatif I tear my pants?
Whatif I never learn to dance?
Everything seems well, and then
the nighttime Whatifs strike again.

~Shel Silverstein

My own, personalized version of the poem might look a little bit like this:  Whatif I’m dumb in language school? Whatif I look like a cultural fool? Whatif I’m not spiritual enough? Whatif it’s bad news at the next check up? Whatif the kids get malaria again? Whatif I give in to that sin? Whatif one of us gets sick and die? Whatif we’re targeted by terrorist tough guys? Whatif our mission just up and collapses? Whatif a far away loved one again relapses?  Whatif the bridge falls down today? What if all giving fades away? What if nobody likes me? Whatif a hippos charges me?

It might be my personality, or perhaps because I’ve lived in West Africa. Maybe I just don’t have enough trust and faith in God, or maybe I have too much faith and trust in myself. Then again, I DO have  a lot of kids and live day to day with so many things that can go wrong. Maybe I just think too much and don’t spend enough time in God’s Word. Then again, I might just be a control monger and need to make it a more consistent habit to, as the cliché goes,  “Let go and let God.”

IMG_1005Whatever the reason(s), I’ve certainly experienced seasons of merciless plaguing by those nighttime whatifs. They pester and attack, often viciously and particularly, at night:

  • when I’m alone with my thoughts,
  • when I’m unable to sleep,
  • when I’m up – already weak and weary and worrying – with a malaria or croup or dysentery or whooping cough or typhoid sick child – again,
  • when I hear loud exploding noises nearby and the political or security situation is already precarious,
  • when I’m scared and feel helpless to actually do anything about it,
  • when I feel like I’m trying to do something I’m completely under-qualified to do and the everyday job requirements are totally out of my league,
  • when I’m insecure and unsure from not feeling the support of friends and family,
  • when reading God’s Word becomes a simple academic activity on a checklist and not a search for His Presence,
  • when I’m longing for, pleading for, the comforting, calming Presence of Jesus, but just not sensing it…

Do these nasty nighttime critters ever plague you? What do you do about it?

I have some friends (including my husband) who tell me that they “just don’t go there.” They take the offensive in this mental or emotional warfare by stopping and changing the direction of dangerous thoughts and feelings as soon as they recognize what is happening. I’m a little envious of that one because I’ve never been able to combat the whatifs in such a manner.  That just doesn’t work for me. Instead, they grow bigger, stronger and more terrifying.

I know others for whom this is a clear spiritual battle. When those first pesky tickles and twitches start, they immediately begin to pray. And God gives grace and grants power  while those friends emerge standing valiant and victorious, even though they don’t necessarily have any answers. God hasn’t worked that way in my life – and I’m secretly a little relieved, almost more afraid of whatif He did.

What works for me?

I have to go ahead and grapple with those vexing mental and emotional creepy crawlies. I have to let myself imagine the individual whatifs and then think about what I’d do, where I’d seek support, verses I’d run to in God’s Word, how I’d move forward, etc. Somewhere, in that wrestling? It is then that I hear God and begin to feel His Presence. It is then that I notice how He directed, even when it was not readily apparent to me on the front end.

Now, I thank Him for the whatifs.

It is in the struggling that He is changing, growing and transforming me as a person, as a wife, as a mother, as a servant, as one of His followers.


Which “whatifs” do you encounter?

I’ve shared three ways that I’ve personally seen others overcome becoming paralyzed by the “whatifs.” Do you find one more effective than the others? Do you have a different strategy than what is mentioned? Please share!


– Richelle Wright, missionary on home assignment from Niger, W. Africa

blog:   Our Wright-ing Pad    ministry:   Wright’s Broadcasting Truth to Niger     facebook:  Richelle Wright



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About Richelle Wright

Disciple of Jesus, lover of God's Word, wife to one great guy, and mama of eight, Richelle has spent the past 13 years in Niger, West Africa. She and her family are currently in the throes of transition as they begin life and ministry (teaching, audio-visual production) in the Canadian province of Québec. ||
  • Linda Watt

    If I let my imagination run wild with the What ifs, I am in trouble. There are so many troubling scenarios out there of things that could happen that I refuse to give in to the What ifs! That would simply be too exhausting for me to deal with. For example, a month ago I was in the States and my family still back in the country we serve in. I heard disturbing news and thought…what if. I refused to go there, but instead prayed for my family, for their protection, etc. We were able to skype and were on FB together so I knew they were safe. For me the What ifs leads to worry and for me that is a waste of time. I used to do the “What if we don’t get our support in time to return to the field?” and that would throw me into panic mode, and I would start worrying about all the things we would have to do if we did not get our support. I stopped the What if cycle and don’t worry about it now. If it happens I believe the Lord will open the doors for us to deal with it. So far for the last 15 years the Lord has proven himself faithful and I rest assured that if he wants me back on the field he will get me there. No more What ifs!

    • Richelle Wright

      linda ~ i love how God gives us each different tools to combat our different struggles. your words sound just like what hubby says to me time and time again – and i’m so wish i could just shove those thoughts away and not go there!

      amen… and praying for you that those whatifs stay far, far away. 🙂

  • Hope Egliht Johansson

    Oh sweet friend. How I wish we could sit again in your 100+ degree living room with no power sipping tea. I know that these kinds of posts are easy to write about the past when (perhaps) the real whatifs are more about the present. I love you so much.
    My whatifs have to do with upcoming speaking engagements. I want that to be about God and not me, but wrestle with that when what I’m talking about is my life and my walk with the Lord. Also whatif we don’t raise enough money this summer. I hate the fundraising game. And that’s due to a lack of trust. But so are all the whatifs….. humpf. Miss you so much, Richelle.

    • Richelle Wright

      miss you too ~ lots!

      just prayed for your speaking engagement. i know the Lord will give you wisdom – and i happen to have it on expert authority (a certain blonde 16 year old we both know) that you are an awesome, Spirit-filled speaker! hugs!

  • Colleen Connell Mitchell

    I have just been through a seen of real struggle with this. Plagued by whatifs and “what are we doing here” when nothing seemed to be working and I was weary and sorrowful and struggling with grief over the loss of my brother and a third miscarriage in three years. I longed for night to come so I could crawl back in bed and make it all go away, then when it arrived, I panicked at the reality of what night did to my brain and my heart. I am finally crawling out of the spiral and what did it was to finally give in to it, like you mentioned above Richelle. I felt exhausted from being constantly dogged by the darkness and trying to run a couple of steps ahead of it. So I just collapsed into it. I can’t say I was wise enough to know in the moment that this was the way out, but I spent a long evening plunging into my hardest memories, deepest pains, and worse fears, weeping before the Lord at how I felt totally overcome by Him, begging Him for the grace to walk in them. I wore out every fiber of my being going there and then giving those places to him. And do you know what? I woke up the next morning feeling like a different person, feeling like I was living the line from the Canticle of Zechariah, “The dawn from on high shall break upon us and shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death and guide our feet into the way of peace.” I think I too learned that it doesn’t work for me to “just not go there”, that I’ll just exhaust myself in the avoidance, that I need to go ahead and touch those places in humility before the Lord and let Him bring light to the darkness in order to go on. After a really difficult month, it was a blessing for me to read this and be reminded, as this community so often does, that I am not alone in my experiences. Thanks, Richelle.

    • Richelle Wright

      these words, colleen ~

      “…I’ll just exhaust myself in the avoidance, that I need to go ahead and touch those places in humility before the Lord and let Him bring light to the darkness in order to go on.”

      you said it so much more eloquently than i did… thank you for sharing your hard, but still beautiful, testimony.

      thankful for you!

  • Jodie

    I am always challenged and inspired by what you write, Richelle. Thankful for the way your words resonate with my heart.

    • Richelle Wright

      thank you, jodie, for taking the time to leave an encouraging word. glad these words have resonated with you. blessings!

  • Kahlil

    Thanks, I just discovered this blog today and it was a great encouragement. I’ve been serving in Beirut, Lebanon since 2004 on short-term trips and full time since 2009. Recently I’ve been considering what the future will hold for me and my wife as we currently serve and what steps we might need to take soon. My parents are aging and funds are tight at the moment, so there’s a lot of whatifs nagging at the back of our minds, to the point sleep is easily disturbed.

    This post was a a breath of fresh air and something that was needed. Thanks for posting it, we’ll be sure to check back for new posts as time allows!

    • Richelle Wright

      Kahlil ~ I’m so glad this was encouragement to you. My husband and I are in a season of transition as well. I think I discovered your blog – thanks for linking back to this site. May God fill you with His peace and confidence even while those whatifs nag.

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