Be Careful What You Wish For

Mom, have you ever read that short story The Monkey’s Paw, by W.W. Jacobs?” my 14-year-old son, Levi, asked one day after school. “It sounds really familiar,” I said, “What’s it about?”

He quickly summarized the story, and about 30 seconds into his synopsis I remembered the tale all too well. It’s one of those English literature standards most everyone has read, or at least read about, at some point during grade school, high school or college. Its haunting theme is one that, while many of us might try to forget, remains present in the forefront of our minds decades after the initial exposure.

I need to confess something at this point: I have a bad habit of wishing things were different when stuff doesn’t go my way. It’s a cross between fantasizing about impossible outcomes and liv- ing in denial of things over which I truly have no control. While I realize I’m not the only person who suffers from this ailment, it is something I need to work on so that I can better roll with the punches, go with the flow and accept life as it unfolds. My son’s mention of The Monkey’s Paw couldn’t have come at a more opportune moment, as I was contemplating my upcoming New Year’s resolution options.

The infamous Monkey’s Paw was written in England in 1902. Mr. and Mrs. White are struggling financially when they encounter a British army sergeant who tells them about the mystical power of the monkey paw to grant three wishes. The sergeant, having experienced a bad outcome with the paw, tosses it into the fire to destroy it. But Mr. White quickly retrieves it and immediately wishes for 200 pounds to cover the final payment on his house. The next day the Whites receive notice that their adult son, Herbert, who had been working at a nearby factory, was killed in a tragic machinery accident. While the factory owner disavowed any responsibility for the accident, he present- ed the Whites a goodwill offering of 200 pounds for their loss.

The story goes on. Mrs. White is mad with grief and wishes for her son back. But just as she hears his knock at the door, Mr. White wishes away the young man’s mangled presence, and the devastated wife opens the door to find no one. Mr. White has learned his lesson. One cannot manipulate fate, and any attempt to do so will lead to tragic outcome. But Mrs. White hasn’t quite gotten the message. She continues to wish for impossible events and to live in a world where she can magically shape her fate and interfere with her family’s destiny.

Sometimes bad stuff happens to us. We lose loved ones. We face painful betrayals. We find ourselves overcome by grief, sorrow or financial woes. Life isn’t always so easy. But the message in the story couldn’t be clearer. Whatever we’re busy wishing for may come at a price much higher than expected. So maybe it makes sense to live in the present and appreciate the gifts we do have. Maybe spending our lives wishing for things to be different will only lead to misery and loss at a level we can’t even imagine. Maybe we really do have everything we need right now, right here.

It’s a simple New Year’s resolution for me this time around. Appreciate the treasures in my life. Acknowledge the gifts of friends, family and circumstance that compose my sometimes messy, sometimes melancholy world. I hope you will, too. Because in truth, now is all we have, and like famed cartoonist Bil Keane said, “Yesterday’s the past, tomorrow’s the future, but to- day is a gift. That’s why it’s called the present.”

Debra Rich Gettleman is a mother and blogger based in the Phoenix area. For more of her work, visit

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