I remember my life in my 20s and 30s. I was single. I felt invincible. Life was carefree. I lived in the present, didn’t think much about the future, and didn’t worry too much about anything except perhaps finding a wife.
I’m well into middle age now, married, with two young daughters. Life these days feels precarious and capricious. Every day, good people die. Bad people live. Some children are lost to illness, random accidents, and willful acts of violence. Other children lose their parents, for the same reasons. People die in their beds and thousands of miles from home. Old people die too suddenly and too slowly.
Life just feels so…fragile. Even when everything is going so well, I sometimes feel like I’m just waiting for the other shoe to drop. This despite the fact that I am healthy and fit, love my work, adore my family, have financial stability, and feel generally fortunate to be leading a wonderful life.
Could it be a function of age and the awareness that, not only will I not live forever, but that my remaining years are fewer than those that have already passed? Maybe it’s that there is so much more at stake when you get older and have a family. Perhaps inevitability and inertia have replaced possibility and opportunity.
I just had an epiphany: I think this feeling of vulnerability stems from the realization that so much of my life is out of my control. And that is a really uncomfortable feeling.
My sensitivity may not only be due to recognition of my approaching mortality. Today’s media, particularly 24/7 cable news, profits from worry, fear, anxiety, gloom, and doom. When you read, watch, or listen to the news, it’s difficult not to believe that we live in dangerous times. This, despite the fact that, thanks to all kinds of advancements and agreements, we have never lived in safer times.
Like most parents, I would assume, I feel a particularly sharp and persistent sense of vulnerability for my family. Anytime my girls are out riding their bikes, I have the nagging fear that they’ll get hit by a car. When my wife and daughters are out for the day and are late returning home, awful images run through my mind. This feeling is especially acute when I leave for a work trip. The thought that I may never again see the three people I love most in the world inevitably infiltrates my otherwise rational mind.
I sometimes leave for trips early in the morning before my daughters are up, so I can’t say goodbye to them. On rare occasions, I leave after my wife and I have bickered. And then I have that thought that I might not see her again. I feel a pit in my stomach and an ache in my heart.
I don’t want to regret the last thing I say or do to my family, so I’ve created a habit of sorts as my defense against that nagging sense of vulnerability and potential loss. Every night when I put my daughters to bed, I tell them I love them and I give them a kiss. When my wife and I go to bed, I always kiss her and tell her I love her—even if I don’t necessarily feel that way at that moment. Every time we part, whether to run a few errands or on a week-long work trip, I make sure I say "I love you" and kiss my wife and kids.
If my time is up, I want the last thing I say or do to show my family how I feel about them.
I want that to be their last memory of me.
Hopefully I’ll continue to return from my trips, my wife will continue to come home safely from work, and my kids will arrive back here from school for many years to come. Regardless, my habit sure makes me feel better when that feeling of fragility sweeps over me.
Perhaps you might try it too?