A red flag is a metaphor for something that should be seen as a warning. Have you ever come home at night to an open front door, only to realize someone had broken in? Have you ever seen someone collapse on the sidewalk? Have you ever seen an unattended child start to cry? There are a number of situations we run into that make us say, “Something’s not right here.” There are red flags that anyone would clearly recognize. What I’ve started to wonder about are what I call “pink flags,” or situations that could have tipped us off that something wasn’t right, if only we were paying enough attention. Usually we only recognize the pink flags in retrospect.
People are calibrated differently when it comes to red flags. One of the hidden gifts of anxiety is that it can lead us to take greater care and avoid risky situations that might ensnare someone else. We can get certified in first aid, save money, dispose of hazardous materials properly, or be the person who calls the police after hearing that single scream. Unfortunately, anxiety is more likely to get us all wound around the axle worrying about things that will probably never happen, like a meteoroid crashing through the roof, rather than worrying about things we can actually control, such as our blood glucose levels or our retirement savings.
Age and experience teach us to see red flags where we used to see only pink. We start to recognize unsuitable job opportunities, cheating lovers, or poorly made junk that isn’t a bargain after all. We tune into physical signals that we’re better off not staying up that late, having that last drink, or eating that third slice of pie. Then again, we also start to take for granted that with age comes infirmity, chronic pain, weight gain, lack of mobility, and all the rest. Just because we start catching more red flags doesn’t mean we catch them all.
A couple years ago, I got some routine blood work done. When I get these kinds of test results, I always read them over carefully and Google what is considered a healthy range. I saw that my blood glucose, while at a healthy level, had increased noticeably each of the last three times I had it checked. Since there are two generations of diabetes and pre-diabetes ahead of me, I take this particular health indicator very seriously. If the current trend continued, I’d cross the line in a few more years. I quit drinking soda, cut back on all forms of sugar, and lost 25 pounds. When I had my blood work done again a few months ago, I was pleased to see that I had reversed the trend and my blood glucose was back where it had been years earlier. Later, I learned that researchers have started referring to Alzheimer’s disease as “Type 3 diabetes,” and I was relieved that I had already taken action. When it comes to risk factors for Alzheimer’s, diabetes, sleep apnea, hypertension, angina, or glaucoma, I’m always scanning for flags of even the faintest pastel hue. I don’t want to put Future Self in the position where we develop a perfectly predictable health condition, given our genetic tendencies, and wish we had taken the warning signs more seriously. I can act on the information available.
The two most commonly procrastinated actions are planning for retirement and dealing with health issues. We like to dump that stuff on Future Self. Even someone who takes great pride in being well organized and never procrastinating on daily tasks may still ignore serious health problems for years on end. When it comes to money, we generally cover our ears and start singing “LA LA LA LA LA!” People who will open up about their darkest memories of child abuse, divorce, depression and psychoactive medication, hoarding and squalor, will shut down when it comes to obvious health risks and debt. We cruise past the red flags and ignore them even as they turn to black flags.
The missing piece is that humans are fallible, and we don’t identify with Future Self. When faced with the aftermath of our procrastination, we can’t connect with how we’ll feel tomorrow or next week, much less with how we’ll feel in ten or twenty years. If we picture ourselves elderly, poor, and ill, we feel fatalistic about it, as though it were out of our hands. We don’t understand the difference between fate, the circumstances that befall us, and destiny, the circumstances we create through direct action. We don’t always attend to the red flags, much less the pink ones, because we get distracted by worries from the past and superficial concerns from today.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.