“What do you look forward to every day?”
Someone asked this on Facebook the other day. At first it seemed like one of those untaxing “get to know ya” questions. But when I went to reach for the easy answer, I discovered to my horror that I couldn’t think of anything.
It was absurd that I couldn’t. My life is full of pleasant and joyful things. I have 10 lovable, fascinating children and a remarkably good husband. I like my job; I like my house and garden. I have friends and family I enjoy being with. I have leisure time every day. My life is studded with pleasures large and small.
But what do I look forward to? What do I spend time longing for every day? I can clearly remember being a child, and always looking forward to something: For the end of math class, for the beginning of summer, for my turn on the swing, for my birthday, for Lent to end so I could eat the cherry sours I unwisely bought ahead of time. My mother used to sing (rather flippantly, I thought, in the face of my anguish): “Enjoy yourself! Enjoy yourself! It’s later than you think.” Her point was that it’s foolish to set all our store in some potential future bliss. All we really have is the present, and if we waste it with various yearnings and worries, we’ll soon be out of time.
So, yes, I used to look forward to things when I was young, but not in a way I want to replicate now. That kind of longing — the kind that robs the present of its charms — is no way to spend a life. I recall the story of the man who was given a spool of string, and every time he tugged on the end, he could skip past some unpleasant part of his life. He kept tugging and tugging, giving himself permission to skip over more and more, until oops! he was dead. He skipped it all. If all we ever do is look forward to some better time in the future, then we’ll miss every joy the present can offer.
But it’s also possible to be so caught up in reacting to the present that we never fully receive it. This is the trap I’ve fallen into.
I think mostly about how I’m going to get through the unpleasant and unavoidable things that plague my day: How will I get myself to wake up enough to do the morning drive? How can I get dinner prepped in time so we won’t eat too late? How can I express the news that it’s time to leave the playground so my four-year-old won’t flip out? I think a lot about how I’m going to manage difficult things, but hardly at all about how I’m going to enjoy the good — even though there is plenty of good. And so the pleasures flit through my arms and are gone again, and off I hustle, arranging myself to deal with the next trial, tugging on that string to get through my day, my year, my life.
Well, that’s no good.
So, determined to realign my life, I set myself to look forward to things I can reasonably expect to enjoy.
And I didn’t have much luck.
I tried to tell myself I can look forward to putting dinner on the table each night, because it’s the culmination of hard work, and I should be glad and grateful to be able to offer hot, nourishing food to my children.
That didn’t go well. I blame the kids, who are terrible.
Then I thought I could look forward to the day itself. Normally, I hear my alarm and groan with dread at the thought of emerging from my cozy cocoon. Instead, I proposed to myself, I could reframe the morning as something to look forward to, and maybe it would help propel me joyfully out into the cold morning air.
That didn’t go well, either. Because I’m not a psychopath.
But then I hit on something else . . .