Well, it seems like forever on bad days I guess. Fortunately there are few of those. Most days are colored neither rosy-red or dark and menacing. They are usually solid, good days, and for that I am a very lucky guy. At the hospital where I work I see lots of newborn babies. They are all perfect. They are like brand new iPads fresh out of the box. No apps, no baggage, no viruses. But from the moment their parents take them home, they begin to diverge. No longer the same perfect little babies, they grow into fussy toddlers, or good toddlers, or fat toddlers, or skinny toddlers. And by the time they are adults they have diverged even more. Elderly people are at the farthest points of divergence. They are like a box of chocolates; I never know what I'm going to get when I approach a curtained-off bay in the pre-operative holding area. Will they have a host of bad medical conditions? Will they be healthy? Will they be packed full of neuroses and like the springing snake inside the can of fake peanut brittle, are they going to explode when I open the top?
See, babies, they are all the same. I know what to expect from the 8-month-old having ear tubes put in. Even the teen having his tonsils out... not usually any big surprises. But at the far end of the spectrum, the 80-year-old having her hip replaced has had a full lifetime to let the world work on her and she's been shaped and molded into something that is scarcely recognizable from the perfect little baby she used to be. Maybe she had an abusive husband, maybe her son died when she was a young woman, maybe she was the most beautiful girl in her high school. Good or bad, the world has its way with us and our nature is to change along with it. The events of our lives are tidal forces that worry their ways upon our souls; wearing down even the hardest rock over the course of a lifetime.
All of us are traveling along the trajectory of our lives, mostly unaware of the tides pushing us this way or that. If we're lucky we happen to find someone who travels along on a similar trajectory. Someone who has had similar forces working on them through their childhood years, and who stays on a path that, while not exactly the same as ours, might be close enough that we don't notice the difference. As time passes I've realized that I'm one of the lucky ones. Jen and I certainly have gaps on our path. She and I see things a bit differently, now and then, but that may be just enough to allow each of us to have perspective on the life of the other, but not so much of a difference that we can't hop over to the other person's path most of the time. Jen and I have our own paths, but they are close to each other and they seem, after 17 years of marriage, to be tracking toward the same place.
When I think about the passage of time and how it relates to the perception of my marriage, I have to disagree with the old adage that "time flies when you're having fun." That may have been true when I was a teen and my head was spinning as the world rocketed by at warp speed with a million distractions. Through my twenties and thirties I noticed it less because who actually has the time to sit down for a minute and consider the passage of time itself when you're working to put a roof over your head, food on the table, discs in the X-Box, and trying to teach your kids all the things you wish you knew when you were their age. No, now that I'm in my forties it doesn't seem like time flew when I was having fun. Not at all. Time flew no matter my mood.
Giddy, fearful, anxious, despondent, ecstatic. No matter your mood it slips away and leaves you with the feeling that you might have missed something really important. But you can't stop to think about it because, cripes, time is spinning away from you as you stop to think about that. What I propose, then, for this Valentines Day, is to stop for a moment. Imagine you live inside a tornado. For me, this is very easy to do. In fact, I think it might be hard to imagine NOT living inside a tornado. Pull your head out of the whirlwind for just a few minutes and realize that the constant pursuit of every little moment isn't necessarily the healthiest endeavor. We try to live life to the fullest, and yes, that's a great idea. We should all take the US Army's advice and be all we can be. But sometimes it's better to be less than you can be. Like a bicycle tire always pumped up to it's maximum pressure, after a few years the sidewalls start to fray. You can only hold so many PSI for so long until you pop. So let some of the air out once in a while and be less than you can be. Lie in bed on a Sunday morning with your kids, or your cat, or a book. Even better, do what I used to do when I had my most troubling moments as a young man. Find a nice quiet place where nobody can reach you. This was much easier in the 1980's and 90's when cell phones weren't so ubiquitous. Find a place in the woods, in the deepest part of the stacks in the library, or on the shore, between a couple big boulders where the wind won't chill you to the bone. Sit for an hour or two and just... exist. Don't make an effort to "meditate," because that in itself is too much. Just put your mind in neutral, and see what happens. Have no expectations. I expect that this sort of thing will be very difficult at first. I know people who can't use the bathroom without bringing in their iPhone and it's sad that we're so busy keeping in touch with other people that we have begun to lose touch with ourselves.
Technology has sped up the pace of life to the point where we can't feel comfortable unless we're doing something all the time. So yeah, spend most of your day living life to the fullest. It's a wonderful world out there and soak up as much as you can. Just remember to stick your head out of the tornado every now and then and realize that that who you are is not defined by what media you consume, who you called that day, how many text messages you got, or how many pictures you posted to instagram. Who you are is inside your head, and examining the contents of that hard case every once in a while is the best thing you can do for yourself, and your family.
Navel-gazing isn't the healthiest activity to pursue full-time, though. Most of my therapy is when I'm running or riding my bicycle. I don't listen to music. I let my mind drift and it's during these times that I have the best thoughts. Everything is clearer with the wind in my face. Problems are easier to solve and the answers come unbidden. I don't have to sit down at some desk and think, "OK now, what am I going to get my wife for Valentine's Day?" I'm an extreme case because I ride or run a lot. All those hours every day add up to a lot of time for introspection, but I think this is what keeps me balanced. If I skip a day, my perception of the nagging annoyances of life starts to change. The tiny things that we all deal with day in and out like folding laundry, weeding the garden beds, getting the car serviced, or scaring away my daughter's latest boyfriend; these things become insurmountable without a few moments to clear my head.
I hope that this Valentine's Day, and hopefully every day from here until old age, we can pull our heads out of the whirlwind, let some air out of the tires, be less than you can be, just for a little while. To realize that our part in the world is more than our Facebook or Twitter accounts, and that Socrates, one of the world's all-time champions at navel-gazing, had it more or less right when he said, "The unexamined life is not worth living." So I promise to my wife Jen, my daughter Kate, my son Peter, and maybe a little bit to Miles the dog and Gunther the cat, that I will try to be the best husband, father (and pet-owner) that I can be. I will stop to examine my path. Make sure I am not diverging from the trajectories of my family, but at the same time not abandoning the path that I feel my own nature has set before me.
We must be true to ourselves before we can be true to others, but the smartest people, I think, are the ones who realize that our paths are never straight and that they wind around the paths of others like a tangled knot of intravenous lines (I am an anesthesiologist, alas). Strive for balance, slow down, realize you aren't perfect, adjust your course, and move on. I love my family because we try to do this together. I hope our paths continue to cross and wish everyone a happy Valentine's Day.