By Dr. Allison Belger
*This article was originally posted in June, 2013. It is reposted here in its entirety, in honor of Father’s Day 2015.
Happy Father’s Day to my wonderful father, whose poignant insights appear at the end of today’s article.
“Impromptu pep talk today: live it up, you guys–there’s no playdough in first grade.”
This was a status update posted on Facebook last week by Sarah Buckley, one of our gym members who is a kindergarten teacher. She was recounting her directive to her soon-to-be first-grade students during their final days as kindergarteners. The message was this: enjoy the unstructured playtime inherent in kindergarten while you can. First grade’s a bitch (that part was my interpretation, but you get the idea). She was telling them to soak in the ease of kindergarten, because different expectations and challenges will kick in during first grade, and things like playdough and free time may be a thing of the past. Later that night, my older daughter, age ten and heading into sixth grade, was lamenting the impending doom that will be classroom travel in school next year. This is a kid who loves stability and the comfort of a home base at school; the idea of class travel and teacher differentiation for academic subjects does not thrill her.
These two things got me thinking about why we have such a difficult time appreciating what we have in the moment; it is only when goodness is gone that we realize how fortunate we’ve been. One of the points of childhood, in my mind, is freedom from recognizing the goodness of our situation. Indeed, a sign of a healthy childhood is the absence of thought about how things are going and how “good” one has it. If a child wonders frequently about whether or not he or she is having a good childhood, chances are that he or she is not. A good childhood simply exists. It does not need to be determined by the child in question.
But beyond the bliss of childhood freedoms, there’s the real notion that we, as adults, are often challenged to appreciate ourselves, our situations, our talents, our possibilities in the moment when they are with us. All too often, it takes the loss of one of these things to force us to acknowledge how well we had things previously.
Physical appearance is an easy example of this scenario. How often do we find a million faults with how we look—our weight, our hair, our height, the size of our breasts, the way our knees gather fat? But years later, we look back at pictures lamenting that the good looks we once had have slipped away. In the moment, we find fault, but later, we reflect with a sense of loss, acknowledging our former beauty, our vibrancy, our appeal. I can remember meeting a woman in her late 70’s at a school pick-up (my daughter was five and this woman’s grandson was in her kindergarten class). The woman gave me a nice compliment about my looks, and I made some kind of self-deprecating remark about how tired I looked–the result of having a five and three-year-old at home–instead of responding with a gracious ‘thank you.’ She quickly and rightfully took the opportunity to school me in the appreciation of beauty and youth and cautioned me that some day I’ll look back at a picture from a day like today when I look “tired,” and I’ll be able to see how beautiful I was. Smack-in-the-face life lesson, and I’ll not soon forget it. Of course, it was about much more than appearances.
These days, I’m in the throes of planning the Nor’Easter Masters Competition, a weekend fitness competition for athletes over 40 who do CrossFit. In my experience as an aging athlete (aging used relatively as I’m 43) and with other Masters athletes, the concept of seizing the moment and making the most of what we have is part of the Masters gig. Nagging injuries and the fear of a significant setback are omnipresent. The balance between pushing to one’s limits to get stronger, faster, and better while recognizing one’s limitations and stepping back as needed, is a tricky one to navigate. What strikes me in the context of this article is how challenging it often is for older athletes to appreciate how much we are able to do. There is so much focus on the “What if’s” and the “I used to’s” and not enough focus on the “How cool is it that I can’s.” It often takes a debilitating injury or major surgery for someone to appreciate what they had, just days earlier. I’m guilty of this, myself. One strategy that has helped me do some good-old-fashioned appreciating is to note a positive takeaway after each time I workout. I’m not a journal person, but if I were, I’d write it there. For me, it’s enough to make a mental note of one thing that went well for me at the gym, on the trail, or at the track. For you, it might be on the golf course or the tennis court or in the water. Whatever your domain, make sure you’re not focusing solely on the things you wish you could do better or on how much better, faster, or stronger you were when you were younger. Make a note of a positive each day, be thankful, and move on.
Seizing the day is an age-old challenge; the struggle to live in the moment and appreciate one’s current blessings is part of being human. It often takes getting to the next stage in our lives before we can appreciate the goodness of the current one. Like the kindergartners who will later appreciate their playdough time, athletes often appreciate the health and abilities only after that wellness and those capacities have diminished.
Maybe this struggle is all a function of the need for comparison—we can’t possibly know the abundance of what we have until we have less of it. We cannot understand the gift of a healthy body until it is compromised by age or injury or illness. We don’t truly appreciate the joy of a steady paycheck unless we have lost it. We may take for granted the devotion of, and attention from, a lover until we long for a similar connection later, when we are alone. We can’t fully comprehend the freedoms of childhood until we look back as adults, tethered by adult responsibilities.
Perhaps the richest example of moments slipping away, only to be cherished at a later date, comes in the realm of parenting. Human beings start life hopelessly dependent on caregivers. Unlike many species, we are born far from possessing independent ambulating, feeding, and general living skills. The complicated human psychological/emotional element adds an intense dimension that makes the rearing of children an incredibly daunting task—rich and rewarding beyond measure, but also heart-wrenchingly challenging. The overwhelming challenges of parenthood, I think, make full appreciation of the moments involved nearly impossible; there is simply too much to do. We are up at night, bleary-eyed while nursing and feeding, yearning for a full night’s sleep, only later to crave a late-night cuddle when the teens are out with friends. We bitch about the demands of homework and driving from one activity to another, only later to long for even the slightest window into what our kids are actually up to at college. I can’t even begin to imagine what a parent goes through when something goes very wrong for a child. That kind of yearning is beyond comprehension and the scope of this article, but even when development and the life cycle go as planned, there is much we wish away, only to want it back in later years.
In honor of Father’s Day, I’ll end this piece with some unedited thoughts from my father, now in his mid-seventies, whose own father died suddenly at age 52, when my father was 18. My parents live in New York, while my family lives in California:
“Your grandmother always would tell me how wonderful the school years were – despite homework, test and papers. She told me I would long for those days. Never believed her. Never lived in the moment. Would count down on the calendar the last days of school each year.
One year, my father died during the countdown. Never counted away my life again. I think it is permissible to count down to seeing my grandkids, though.
Major lesson: This all cannot be taught — empirical evidence required.”
Yes. But I do think we can all speed up our learning curves a bit. Today is as good a day as any to start: Enjoy the accomplishment of your workout (even if you don’t hit a new PR), relish the hug of a loved one (even if he made you angry yesterday), soak in the smell of your infant (even if it’s 2 am and she is screaming), be thankful for your paycheck (even if your boss drives you nuts), and enjoy running your fingers through your hair—it may be frizzy, but at least you have some.