This is the prize
As most of us probably did, I grew up with a definite system of rewards. If I made my bed and cleaned my room, I got my allowance. If I did my homework, my papers were adorned with gold stars. Even in reverse, I learned that a reward was waiting for me if I didn't break the rules. In high school, if I met the curfew time set by my parents, I got to use their car the next weekend. Rewards are a great way to train people (and puppies) to do what they’re supposed to do, but they also go a long way toward convincing us that all good things are somewhere in the distance. In other words, I didn’t really grow up appreciating what I had in my hand, in my pocket, or even in my heart at that moment. I learned to keep my eye focused on the future with much less attention on the present.
I now find myself wanting to luxuriate in practically every tiny slice of my life.
In grammar school, I thought about how great my life would be when I got to middle school and then high school. In college, I wanted to grow up and have a great job. In my career, I often thought about “the next big thing.” I concentrated on my plans for what was just around the next corner, and it kept my brain working quickly to get myself there as soon as I could. But as I’ve gotten older—and am thinking about how much less time I have left than I’ve already lived—I’m eager to slow things down and to learn to appreciate every moment I have. This is no new thought, and certainly nothing I came up with on my own. I’ve heard “older” people talk about it for so many years that it’s become a cliché. And yet, I now find myself wanting to luxuriate in practically every tiny slice of my life.
But after nearly 70 years of what turns out to be a bad habit—always wishing away the moment for a made-up future reward—making a change is not as easy as I’d hoped. It’s almost a second-by-second task to remind myself to enjoy what’s happening right now. Meditation is helping, because it provides me with some tools to keep myself focused on this moment. When my thoughts start heading off toward the horizon, if I can remember to do it, I try to stop and just breathe and maybe look around at what’s right in front of me. I see Jodi working on an art project, the beautiful, winding trunk of the Japanese maple in the backyard, and the dogs egging each other on to another game of tug-of-war. Each of those images is more of a prize than anything I might make up about the unknown future.
I also know enough about myself to be clear that I need some goals. But I’m learning that the key is to not let those goals be what drives me. Afternoons in a hammock reading, backyard remodels, and vacation rentals in European cities are all fun to think about—and may well be in my future. But I’m learning to focus a little less on those and a little more on what fills this present moment. I remember laughing with friends on a pre-pandemic vacation when we were planning where we might eat dinner while we were eating lunch. That scene stays in my brain as a perfect symbol of making the potential reward greater than the real life I’m living.
It’s funny to me—and a little sad—that we have so much more clarity about our lives when we’re closer to the end of them than to the beginning. But, of course, it makes sense. Even if someone had told me this 30 years ago, I’m not sure I would have listened. What was important then was jumping through the necessary hoops to get to the thing I was dreaming about. And I regret very little in my life. What I do wish, though, is that I’d spent more time truly appreciating things like the little concrete porch of the first house I owned. I sat there many times and watched the sun set over the school yard at the end of the block. But I know I was always wishing somewhere in me for a greater view. Now I know that this is the view—this moment. I want to be in it with all of my attention, and to fully appreciate what I'm holding in my hand more than what I'm reaching for.