Forward Thinking

Many years ago actor Robert Duvall played a bittersweet character in a movie titled A Family Thing. In one scene, his character, Earl Pilcher, Jr., talks with his nephew, who has withdrawn from life, disappointed from missing what should have been a professional football career.

The young man has separated from his wife and daughters due to his extended depression, and Earl thinks the nephew is selfish by taking his bad fortune out on his family. Earl reminds him that it isn’t their fault his knee blew out; Earl adds that the daughters deserve happy parents and a calm family life.

Earl tells his nephew there are other things in life—simple things—that can make him happy again. “Heck,” he says, “Being happy ain't nothin’ more than havin’ something to look forward to.”

When It Works

I can’t begin to tell you what an impact those words had on me. The more I thought about them the more true I knew them to be. And this obvious but well-kept secret began to be part of my daily life.

When I saw my kids going through a rough period, I talked about our vacation plans for the upcoming summer.

When a friend was facing a particular financial challenge, I proposed we pick a future date when “all this bad stuff” would be in the rearview mirror. When he suggested “January 1,” I responded, “Well, Eddie, when that loan is finally paid at the end of December, I’ll drive to your house on New Year’s Day, and we’ll burn that paid-off receipt and drink to your success!” He looked at me cock-eyed and said, “Really?” Shaking on it, I said, “Really!” And I made sure I did. Then, as we watched the receipt burn, Eddie told me how many times he had thought about our agreement.

Another friend was facing several chemotherapy treatments. At the halfway mark, I treated him to a tall chocolate milkshake. And when he was finished with the treatments, it was a promised steak dinner (which he was too ill to make on that day, but we did make good a couple of months later). He said he had a picture of that steak in his mind the whole time and was looking forward to eating it. He’s been cancer free for four years.

Numerous times over the years, my wife and I have fantasized about what our kids would be doing as they aged; we often were close in our predictions, usually with a “miss the target but hit the tree” result. As we reminisce about what we believed and hoped for years, there is a certain satisfaction in knowing our kids so well.

Even professionally I began to see some wisdom in contract negotiations, working toward “win/win” solutions. If each party had something positive to walk away with, something to brag about back in the office, something to look forward to instead of regret—then negotiations seemed to go much better.

However, what I found is that the end result in anything typically doesn’t look exactly like what we were anticipating. What did we think marriage, home-ownership, parenthood, and even grandparenthood would look like?  Likely, we envisioned all of the best things from those worlds, not the typical problems and shortcomings. How about some of those nights at the emergency room with a sick kid or the bare spots in the front lawn we thought would look like a putting green? There are very few moments in adult life that play out like the movie in your our head.

Realistically Speaking

However, as we age, we begin to set our sights a little lower and more realistically. It may help make disappointments not so dramatic, also. When we master this, the things we look forward to take on a more “possible” characteristic, and we engineer our desires differently.

Instead of hoping the entire family can be together at a beautiful ski lodge with a roaring fire for Christmas Day, we’re simply grateful we’re together for the holiday. It doesn’t really matter where we get together now, does it? One thing I noticed when the video era replaced the snapshot period was significant; if someone showed a still picture of a special day and described it to others, it was completely virgin pure, and all of the stories about that day were recalled with positive memories. Nowadays, when the video is shown, and we hear Grandma yelling in the background, or a siren outside, or Aunt Meg running the garbage disposal in the kitchen, some of the romance is lost. It seems memory “enhancers” are better kept as real stories rather than “playbacks.” Reality always clouds the always-generous fantasy.

I have even seen people looking at a picture from an event they recalled favorably from a long time ago and commenting, “Oh, that wasn’t me. I was in a blue dress.” Later, they realize that was indeed true, but the memory had a blue dress and the actual video “recalled event” had a black dress. In such instances, the memory has taken on a life of its own, and the person is exercising the “something to look forward to” theory in reverse, with something to reflect favorably upon.” They have recreated their own version.

This isn’t science—it’s simply a way to train the mind with what is probably an innate sensory reaction of focusing on something positive to get through moments when things look bleak. I have found that tweaking this response in people yields positive results.

Over the years, the holidays, the picnics, the county fair, the special dates, the golf outings, the concerts, the plays, the softball games, the football games, the movies, the special dinners, the congratulatory lunches, the honorary banquets, the birthdays, anniversaries, and other special occasions have served as a series of rings on a jungle gym.  Grabbing one and swinging towards the next has kept me steady, interested, focused, and connected. Indeed, it’s all about something to look forward to. Just think—the new PRB magazine will be here in 30 days!

Ron Ciancutti has worked in the parks and recreation industry since he was 16 years old, covering everything from maintenance, operations, engineering, surveying, park management, design, planning, recreation, and finance. He holds a B.S. in Business from Bowling Green State University and an M.B.A. from Baldwin Wallace University. He has held his current position as Director of Procurement since 1990. He is not on Facebook, but he can be reached at