While on vacation with my family, I had a rare moment of solitude at the beach. My wife and kids were at the house getting snacks. It was warm, and I was laying back in a lounge chair in the shade.
I closed my eyes and focused on the sensations around me. I could hear the ocean, with its loud and steady rhythm. And I could hear snippets of conversations around me. I could hear different streams of music from radios. Families. Groups of friends.
A breeze blew warm, humid air past me. I could feel sand everywhere. On my feet. My legs. My face. My eyes were closed, but the brightness seeped in, giving me a dim, reddish-orange awareness of the world around me.
I tried to let go of all schedules and stresses and ambitions and expectations. Just focus on this moment. Be aware of everything around me. It felt like a time I should remember. I was content. We were healthy and safe. We had what we needed. I could let go.
I thought about ambition. Focusing on the future. It’s easy to let your mind live in the future, on your hopes. Always focus on how much better things will be around the next corner.
Of course you need to consider the future. Plan your day to get to meetings on time. Weigh your options when you make a decision. But once you make a plan or a decision, it can be easy to let your mind fall into a loop of worry and stress and re-evaluation.
It’s also easy to focus on long-term hopes and desires. Convince yourself things will be so much better in a few years when you finally get that thing, or finally achieve that goal. But if you let your head live there, you won’t live in the world around you. You’ll wake up one day and find your kids have grown up around you. Where did the time go?
The truth is that time is cruel. Or maybe not cruel, but wild and untamed and ultimately indifferent. Like the ocean. It will take things away. It will break everything down. We cannot hope to wrestle it down or master it.
We don’t know when our time will end. Healthy people get unexpected illnesses. Random accidents take people away from us before their time.
I thought about the shape of my life if my time was due. Would my story be about someone who didn’t achieve their goal? What is my goal anyway? What is the narrative arc of my life? Was this person always on the verge? How would the people I love get by? Would they still be safe? Would they be ok?
I’m not done teaching lessons to my kids. Will they learn the value of hard work? Will they learn that excellence takes discipline? That becoming good at any endeavor must necessarily start as being bad at something and practicing anyway, even when it’s hard? Will they take their health seriously? Learn the value of a clear head after a good sweat? Will they gain patience and the value of non-distraction?
I would hope so. In truth, it took me a long time to learn a lot of these lessons. I suppose I want to give them a shortcut. I’m sure my parents wanted to give this to me too. But I was pretty thick-headed. Maybe it’s the nature of kids to reject some lessons until they learn on their own. It’s a lot easier to learn something by doing it wrong over and over again than by listening to someone and taking them at their word.
Sure there would be a lot of things undone. But would I leave behind any tragedy? Any wrongs that I didn’t set aright? Any forgiveness that I had failed to seek? I don’t think so. I’ve tried to act in good faith and treat people fairly. I don’t think anyone has good reason to harbor resentment towards me. And if they do it may be something they need to deal with themselves.
But if I could think of something. If I felt something was missing, or that I was leaving behind some wrong that needed to be righted, this would be something for me to deal with now. Work to fix it until no longer occupied a darkness in my mind.
As I sat there, I realized that the world would go on without me. Even if things were hard, if bad things happened, the people I loved would continue on and do their best. And I could accept that. Because I did my best. Sure I made lots of mistakes, but I cared and I had an earnest heart. I could respect that life.
That realization felt like a save point. In a video game you’ll play different chapters and different parts, but then often you will get to a save point. If you fail after that, you can always go back to your save point.
As you go on in life, take time to consider your life. Are you living in such a way that an unexpected end to your life would leave a hole with sharp edges and broken promises? Or can you feel content that you’ve made the world a little better and followed consistent principles?
Take stock of your life right now. If you can accept what you would leave behind — if something happened to you today — that’s like another save point further down the road. It’s a waypoint in your journey. If there is something important left undone, then take the time to handle it. But otherwise be content that you are following your path. You’re playing the game the right way and living your story.
I felt like I had stumbled on a useful exercise. A way of grounding yourself. And I will try to do this now and again. I’m sure it’s not a new idea. I’m sure this type of exercise is well-worn territory for the ancient stoics. Maybe the analogy to video game save points is novel. And maybe it only makes sense in my head. That’s ok.
In any case, give it a try. It felt useful and helpful to me. Maybe it’ll be helpful to you.