Birthdays are like signposts, and as we hurtle down life’s interstate, we pass these silent markers once a year. They don’t ask us to stop or slow down or yield, but if we’re smart, we’ll pause to reflect when we meet them, thinking on all we’ve seen on the road in the last year.
Yesterday marked my 46th trip around the sun. Hard to believe I’ve already passed that many signposts. If I’m very lucky, I’ll pass that many yet again before riding into the sunset. What’s more likely is that I won’t. As I sit here today, then, I think about what I’ve achieved (or haven’t), and wonder what I can still do with the time I have left…But that’s the problem, isn’t it? One never knows how much time there is.
The great illusion of time
And indeed there will be time
For the yellow smoke that slides along the street,
Rubbing its back upon the window panes;
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.
– T.S. Eliot, from The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
For many people, that’s the way life feels when you’re young…Time and the possibilities it contains are endless. We will live forever. No need to rush into things. Plenty of opportunity to explore, have fun, chart the best path, find our future. Eventually. No need to plough headlong into things like marriage or buying a house or having kids; all in good time. Better to think things through, do the right stuff, avoid making big mistakes. At least, that’s how I wound up approaching my life.
In most cases, fear held me back from doing things I should have been doing. I was afraid to get married because I worried that it might not work out, that maybe I was making a mistake, like the mistakes my parents made (repeatedly, unfortunately). I waited to have kids because I thought there was time, because I wanted my income to be more stable, because I wanted to be sure, because I worried that maybe I wouldn’t be a good parent. I waited to buy a house because I was afraid to commit myself to something that big for that long. I waited to leave jobs that were wrong for me because I was afraid I might be making a mistake, that maybe if I stuck it out just a little longer, everything would work out.
Fear and waiting. Waiting, waiting, waiting…And through all this waiting, the clock never stopped ticking.
I’ve waited too long for too many things. I’ve squandered the precious gift of time through my fear and selfishness, and now time is taking its revenge. My body has started to show wear and tear, a menagerie or minor maladies swirl around me like gnats, and things that were once a given are now suddenly not so certain any more. Nothing ever was certain, actually…I just fooled myself into thinking it was. And the worst thing about all of this is that some people around me have suffered as a result.
At the same time, I look up and realize how many people find happiness despite the imperfections and messiness of life. They’ve been falling in and out of love, having kids, buying houses, making mistakes, struggling, and really living. I’ve been dodging mistakes and coasting and putting things off because I could, and because the people who love me were too kind to tell me to wake up and smell the coffee.
So now that I’m 46, with my life more than likely half over, my eyes have finally been opened and a realization sinks down to my bones: there is no time.
Luckily for me, it’s never too late to smell the coffee, and I got two big whiffs lately that helped me to wake up.
Get busy living
The first scent of coffee came when I learned my 17-year-old cousin-once-removed Jordan was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia. He is now battling this disease every day, undergoing extensive and protracted chemotherapy, but the prognosis looks good so far (roughly 80% of kids can be cured). When I look at the courage with which he faces this life-and-death struggle, and see him fight and still manage to smile, it brings all of my problems into stark relief, and shows me how tiny they really are.
The second whiff came on my birthday. My wife gave me a thoughtful hand-made card, packed with three simple sentiments:
- You are appreciated
- You are blessed
- You are loved
The next obvious conclusion one can draw from those three things, the thing she was too nice to say, is that I am lucky, in a thousand tiny ways and a few big ones. It’s unbelievable that I could complain under circumstances like this, and that I would be afraid to go after things in my life.
And so in the coming year, big change is afoot. I expect challenges. I expect both failures and successes. But most of all, I expect to embrace the next signpost I see on this long and winding road, because I’ll be seeing it after having really lived another year.