When I was in the TESOL program, I had to teach a lesson on the “Unreal Conditional.” My trainers suggested using the phrase “If I had a million dollars…” to start out. Logically, it is easy to use this example to show the meaning and formation of the grammar point. The person obviously doesn’t have a million dollars at the moment, so it is clearly unreal. I didn’t really want to use that example, however. First of all, I didn’t know if it would be culturally appropriate with our foreign students. Also, I think it is difficult to predict what you would do if you were in a situation that is highly improbable. Why should I make plans for non-existent money? It’s just a waste of time and will fuel desire for something I might never have.
I think that a lot of times, hypothetical situations just aren’t worth thinking about. Sometimes in high school we had “moral debates.” The teacher would read out a moral dilemma and ask us to argue about it. I suppose this could be an opportunity to witness about my faith, but it can also produce unneeded anxiety or conflict. What would you do if you had to go back into a burning building and had to choose which of your children to save? What would you do if you knew about a crime that had been committed? Many of our exercises had to do with honesty. It frustrated me because I wanted to defend the existence of absolutes, yet we were given extreme examples. One question regarded whether or not as doctors we would tell a terminally ill patient about his/her disease.
There are, however, times when it is worth it to think ahead. And it is important to have a position on certain moral issues. Sometimes “it depends” is not an option. Preparedness is a good idea for moral as well as practical issues. There’s nothing wrong with looking at the weather report and being prepared in case of rain. There’s nothing wrong with noticing that a financial crisis may be imminent, and coming up with alternate plans. There’s nothing wrong with taking a course in CPR. Do I need to imagine all the bloody/scary/life-threatening accidents that could occur? No. But I can acquire the skills for dealing with them, just in case. And I can prepare my heart for facing difficult spiritual matters, even if I can’t imagine which of them I will have to face.
My standard answer for untimely hypothetical questions is “I don’t know.” Maybe I have an idea of what I would do, but I don’t like to make assumptions. Life is full of surprises, and only God knows what the future holds. I think it’s perfectly fine to have a measure of uncertainty about the details.
If you answer too quickly, you may simply have to change your mind. If you had asked me several years ago if I could imagine myself living in Russia, I would have said no. If you had asked if I wanted to teach ESL, I would have said no. I definitely didn’t think I would ever have an excuse to go to Africa.
I don’t know how long I will live in Russia. I don’t know if I will ever marry. I don’t know what I will be doing in 5 years. I don’t know if I will ever have a terminal illness. And I don’t need to know right now. And I'm not going to worry about it!