next – noun | \ˈnekst\
: coming after this one : coming after the one that just came, happened, etc.
: any other
Last Tuesday, I planned to go with Steve to a doctor’s appointment where the surgeon would evaluate the progress of Steve’s knee and determine where to go next. From our previous appointment four weeks earlier, we knew the milestones Steve should try to achieve in terms of flexibility and range of motion. Since he wasn’t quite there yet (despite diligently doing everything the physical therapists had recommended), we expected the doctor to prescribe more of the same.
Instead, the surgeon changed the plan entirely. Get rid of the crutches, the brace, the compression sleeve now, he ordered. What about driving? we asked. “I don’t care if you drive now,” the doctor said. Steve and I looked at each other, eyebrows raised. A final procedure, which had been planned since the initial tendon repair, was moved up a couple of weeks and scheduled for 15 days later. When we did finally walk out of the office — with me holding the crutch and brace — we were wide-eyed and expectant.
What’s next was suddenly right now, and we began to look ahead to new milestones.
According to Gallup researcher Shane Lopez, focusing on what’s next is an important element of hope. In his book Making Hope Happen, Lopez calls this “nexting” and describes how it works with his son Parrish. “Nexting is my way of practicing hope with Parrish, a seven-year-old. By encouraging him to talk about the future, I find out what he is excited about,” Lopez writes. But in addition to “nexting,” another key element of hope is remembering. “We build our hopes from memories,”’ Lopez says. Using fMRI brain scans, neuroscientists have discovered that the same area of the brain lights up whether a participant is remembering a past event or imagining a future event.
In other words, hope becomes firmly established when we use our past experiences to help us face what’s next in our lives.
Over the past several days, that’s how Steve and I have processed the news of his fast-tracked recovery and bumped up procedure. We’ve talked about where he started, how much progress he’s made, what surgery was like last time, how long he stayed in the recovery room, and what I did while the surgery was happening. We rehearsed the doctor’s words from memory, and we went back over the earlier timelines we were given.
And then we planned for what’s next: what time should we leave the house, where the boys would go that night, how much pain Steve might have from this second procedure.
I’ve been a planner most of my life — projecting out days, weeks, even months what I will do and when. I’ve often associated that sense of expectation about what’s ahead with my hopeful outlook. I also have understood the importance of reflecting on the past in order to the make the future more promising. In the Bible, God called Samuel to set up an “Ebenezer,” or a stone of remembrance, to signify God’s faithfulness in battle with the Philistines for future generations to remember.
But according to Lopez, the stories we tell ourselves about the past change over time. Every time we remember, we alter them slightly, adding something new to the story or taking something away. Eventually, certain stories become our “Ebenezers,” or our defining moments. “Little by little, we choose to make our stories less hopeful or more so,” Lopez writes. And not surprisingly, the more hopefully we think of our past, the more hopefully we plan for the future.
That’s what hearing the doctor’s current plan did for us. It helped us reframe where we are and where we’ve come from in terms of success rather than failure. Things haven’t gone exactly as they had described to us a few weeks ago, but Steve is still making progress. Seeing him walk out of the office on his own and then later drive the van did feel very hopeful, despite what we were thinking in the minutes before that doctor’s appointment.
“Reliving and preliving help shape our lives,” Lopez writes. “The stories of our past don’t predict the future, but they do help us find paths to where we want to go. By focusing on the what, when, and where of our experience, we can learn how to exercise the modicum of control we have over our future.”
We don’t know exactly how Steve’s recovery will progress from here or how well our family will adapt to his changing needs. But we’ve made it this far, and if the past is any indication, I think we’re ready for whatever comes next.
What’s YOUR word of the week? Drop it into the comments section, or share it on this week’s Facebook post. If you post about your word on your blog, please slip the link into a comment below so I can stop by and join you.