Life is not a race

As a middle child with four older brothers, my early years were consumed with catching up. I was in a hurry to get taller, make more baskets, catch more baseballs, rake more leaves, mow more lawn, deliver more newspapers, work more hours at the pizza shop. I was in a hurry, too, to get out of the house and into college and then out of college and into a marriage. (I held off on kids for a while. Wait — did I say I did that? That was my wife’s idea.)

The last thirty years haven’t broken me of that early habit. There’s always somebody older, more accomplished, ahead, to compare myself to — if I insist on it. But why insist on it? Just for old times’ sake?

If I would have stopped to think it over, the finish line of this race isn’t pretty. Heck, even the back half isn’t so hot. And I’ve hit the back half, at least as far as current life-expectancy estimates have it. Not to mention my own energy levels, my hairline, my work situation, etcetera.

Don’t get me wrong. I have a mortgage and a retirement account. Life isn’t that bad. (We’ve learned that it can’t be so bad, if you can still say you have a mortgage and a retirement plan.) I’m tired but I could get solid sleep still. I have small boys to keep me young, and I get some joy out of work.

Or I would get joy out of it, if I wasn’t rushing to the next deadline, the next mile marker that proves I’m one of the big boys.

Let me put this as mildly as I can: What the hell? Why has my whole life been like a rush to make up for lost time? Why did I internalize this pressure to “keep up”?

And here’s the kicker: Why am I only now, as I race up to my 43rd birthday, realizing what a stupid waste of energy this has been?

Could it be that I’m not alone?

I’m thinking maybe some other folks around me are giving off the same energy, that we’re feeding off each other like hyper kids in a public theater. So this is my modest proposal.

Letting up

Imagine living in the moment in which you are now, instead of straining after whatever’s next. You’ve probably done that. But it’s taken me a long time just to dream up the possibility.

Looked at one way, the last two or three years have been a slow, deliberate effort on my part to unclench my white-knuckled hand from the throttle of my life. I still have my ambitions, but they’re tempered by the realization that the best thing I’ll probably ever do in life I’ve already done: fathered two boys. Or I should say I’m still doing it, still acting as their father, though they’re quickly getting beyond my reach. And that’s great. It really is.

At first, though, I thought it was a mid-life crisis, this unclenching. Forty hit me hard. I spent time staring at the void of the future and wondering what I’d been doing. More recently, settling into this pace, I’m starting to think I was just hitting the brakes. Or growing up, if you prefer.

So from my current vantage point, it starts to look like the adolescent break-neck sprint into the future should be a blip on the larger screen of a person’s life. Adults should be looking at it with an indulgent smile. “Ah, teenagers … seem not to know they have their whole life ahead of them, to try new things, make new acquaintances, sip the nectar of sexual delights, taste fermented beverages. Trying to do it all in one weekend. Kids.”

“Getting there” is kind of boring

Part of my work, which is also part of my play, is writing. Maybe the realization of my discontent is coming out of a slow resolution as I write, read, edit, and work on my craft. Joy in writing comes first and finest from the doing of the writing. That clean-washed feeling I get inside from a good writing session, the skip in my cadence that chases me through the page and out into the day, comes from the writing itself. The doing of the writing. Nothing, not the finishing of the story or the validation of an editor, or even the nod of a reader, quite compares.

“Getting there,” “making it,” “getting published” — I’ve hit a couple milestones here, and countless others still elude me. Some elude all but a very few writers who have ever lived. Which proves again: there can always be another milestone you haven’t hit, if you want there to be.

But even the couple milestones I have hit haven’t left me feeling quite the rush of excitement I expected. Nothing quite on the order of one good writing session, one really fine scene coming out through my fingers. Nothing nearly as joyous as that flow.

To me that’s a metaphor for my life. It’s also a reminder about my writing, and all the work I do. Writing and life aren’t about “getting there,” wherever “there” is. The process — the doing — is where it’s at.

Do I still want to “get there”? Do I still want those milestones? Sure—except the final one, of course. I just don’t want to race to them. All that hurry and stress ruins it, blurs the way-side sights.

All this just means that I get to finally stop racing toward the finish line. I’m giving myself permission to take my time, delight in the prose, and prose-like things. The now of my life, which may (and of course will) slip away.

Maybe I’ll be happier for it. Maybe you would be too. And maybe this is old news — I’m sure it is. Which means I’m either incredibly thick-skulled or, just as likely, so are a lot of us.

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