The emotional upside of economic downturn: A Lesson from a 12-year old.
Fifty thousand dollars. That's how much I lost in the past three weeks. Three years' savings- gone virtually overnight. That number flashed neon in the front of my brain as I drove to work feeling really quite sorry for myself.
But you know that feeling. It has consumed every one of us recently. Since we're in this together- you and I and the whole of the US--I need to tell you about Henry. He has something to teach us about what really counts in life when fear of losing money, our houses, consumes us.
At age 12, Henry looks more like a stick insect than a boy. His limbs are emaciated from poor nutrition and highly potent medications and his legs are so thin they can barely support his frail torso.
I met Henry four years ago when he appeared in my office complaining of shortness of breath. He sat there huffing and puffing. His lips were purplish blue and his eyes were hollow and dark. He was only eight at the time and something was desperately wrong. His mother said that he had been sick with the flu and couldn't seem to kick it. Then came a terrible cough and shortness of breath....and I realized that Henry's heart was dying. A virus had attacked his heart and the muscle couldn't recover. His only hope was a transplant.
When we discussed the prognosis his mother sobbed. Little Henry tried to console her.
Henry got his new heart, and with it, he seems to have also gotten a deeper understanding of life, in some ways, deeper than my own. A few days ago he came to see me.
"How are you today Henry?" I rotely started at the beginning of the exam.
"Great!" he beamed. "My Dad and me are going camping this weekend."
This is in Michigan. The Upper Peninsula. "Won't it be cold?"
"Yup. But that's part of the fun. My dad takes me every year and it's the best part of the whole year."
"What do you do out there?" I asked, genuinely curious about what two people do for three days on an island without other people, warm water, electricity or lattes.
"Oh, that's easy. We never have enough time to explore all the places we want to," he said.
"What do you and your dad talk about?"
"I dunno. About stuff I guess. There's a lot of time we don't talk."
As he spoke, Henry beamed, as if he still didn't believe how much fun he had with his Dad on these trips.
He must have sensed my disbelief and suddenly he looked puzzled. He couldn't understand what I didn't get.
"We just love to be together- my Dad and me. On the beach or in the woods. You know- just outside."
My blank expression wasn't making him feel victorious.
"How lucky that you both enjoy each other so much," I said, wondering to myself , "Who in my life enjoys my company this much?"
I put down my otoscope and looked at his mother in astonishment. How much better can life get? Henry's voice raised in pitch and intensity when he spoke about being with his Dad. His excitement filled every space in my small exam room. It made worrying about $50,000 seem stupid, embarrassing. I was so glad that Henry couldn't see inside my head.
It hit me then that almost dying had changed Henry in a way that I - maybe all of us - need to change. One thing that serious Illness does to almost anyone it befalls is to realign priorities in a nanosecond. The Good Stuff In life floats to the top. You know what is important.
In my office that day, Henry's excitement over being with his Dad In the cold woods turned my own fears on their head. Life is not about the stock market, and moods should not mirror the S+P.
The Good Stuff In our lives is relationships. The close and intimate ones with the people we've been privileged to know for a short time on this earth. When economic times are good we often get badly duped. We forget that stuff is just stuff and money is really just paper. It isn't freedom, it isn't love and it most certainly doesn't enjoy our company. Loved ones do.
So let us take heart during these times and see them as an opportunity to live and love and get back to the good stuff in life: Our people, our loved ones who need us more than we can know and who want us- our time, our attention, and occasionally, a walk in the woods.
"I guess I know why I really like being with my Dad so much," Henry blurted at the end of the exam. "I never told anyone this, but before my surgery I overheard him talking to my Mom. He told her that he wanted to ask the doctor about using his heart for the transplant. That would have been horrible. But ever since then, I feel I owe him something. You know what I mean?"
The good part of this economic crisis is that perhaps it will shake us as Henry shook me. May it force us to see what we really need and why we spend so much time pursuing what we don't.
Dr. Meg Meeker, a pediatrician, is the author of Strong Fathers, Strong Daughers: 10 Secrets Every Father Should Know as well as Epidemic: How Teen Sex Is Killing Our Kids.