Just yesterday,it seems, I was three, toddling around my grandparents’ property in Idaho; following my grandfather everywhere and chasing the neighbors chickens from across the road. These were happy, carefree days. I was surrounded by people I loved, in a location I loved, doing the things I loved, whatever that is at three, and nothing in my world was amiss. I looked forward to each moment. In fact, I was too busy enjoying each moment I had no concern for the next. My old mind now recalls those happy times as the endless days of summer. There were no rainy days both literally and figuratively.
Fast forward 50 years and the landscape dramatically shifts. I’m no longer three, no longer quite so carefree. My free-spirited happy-go-lucky three-year-old self morphed into a middle-aged woman with worries. There are wonderful summer days aplenty in my 50-year-old life. There are also many, many overcast and rainy days too.
When did I grow up? When did I take on the responsibilities and cares that fill my days? How and when did I lose that sense of existing only for the moment without worrying about or anticipating the next?
These days, with a birthday around the corner marking the half-century milestone so many love to hate, I’m prone to pondering the reality of my aging and the inevitability of my ultimate death more often than ever before. Will I be okay financially after I can no longer work? Will my physical body age well so that I can remain active, mobile, and self-sufficient for as long as possible? Will my mind and my memories remain intact? Will my children be able to obtain the skills and educations they need in order to live well and take care of themselves as adults? I have replaced my 3-year-old ways of living in the moment with a 50-year-old’s ways of stressing out about the wrong turns in life and the reality that, at 50, I am again in a place of starting over without the benefit of youth, energy, time and a fairly clean slate to work with.
I’m aging. I don’t like it. Unlike being an infant and being unaware in my helplessness, I will someday be helpless again (oh, I do hope not too helpless) only this time, I will be aware of that helplessness and my dependency upon others. I will be aware of days when I was stronger, when I was healthier, when I was better able to cope independently. I think I will not enjoy being in that place. I am working hard now to avoid that by staying as active and mentally alert as possible.
I wonder often, of late, what these days will really be like. Like the fable of the Ant and the Grasshopper, I wonder when it comes to the latter years of my life will I be more like the Grasshopper or the Ant? So often, to date, I’ve foolishly chosen the role of the Grasshopper. I do not choose this path now, but I doubt myself. Can I adequately prepare for the winter years of my life at this late stage of the game. Am I even ready, beyond merely storing away for a rainy day, to weather all that I might encounter in years to come? Aging, especially aging well, is not for the faint of heart.
So, facing the reality of my humanity and my mortality, I pause to consider a few lessons gleaned from my 3-year-old self. These lessons don’t do anything to slow the inevitable ticking of the clock in its relentless march toward the future, but they might help make the the journey into the days ahead something far more enjoyable to look back on than my anxious 49.75 year-old-self is doing now. These ideas are not new, they are not profound, but they are, I think, helpful in creating the kind of perspective that creates the kind of life that leads to the kind of future I hope to live.
Lesson 1: Live in the moment. At 3, I really had no idea that the future existed. I lived in a perpetual state of “now”. I didn’t worry about troubles to come. I knew the big people in my life would take care of everything. In fact I wasn’t even aware that there was anything they needed to take care of for me. I spent all my existence exploring and enjoying the world immediately around me whether it was mucking around in the pasture in my Grandpa’s old galoshes or playing in the hay in the barn or chasing the neighbors chickens to see if they would fly. I enjoyed each and every moment as if it was new even though each and every day was much like the day before and the day to come. As adults we gain greater capacity to remember and learn and anticipate. That’s good, but we often lose the sense of wonder and joy that comes with being in the present without dwelling anxiously about what must be done next. I’m not suggesting we scrap planning or goal-setting. But backing off and focusing on being in the moment and appreciating that moment for what it is, instead of viewing life always in terms of the things that have to happen to get through the week or the month. I’m a planner and a scheduler, so this is always a challenge for me.
Lesson 2: Trust more. Worry less. My 3-year-old self didn’t worry about the future and the potential problems that could befall me. I now know that there were plenty of things that were worried about by the Big People in my life, but I was unaware of any of it. As an adult, I cannot pretend to be unaware or cavalier about challenges I face or business I must tend to. I do, however, need to trust more actively that the Big Person in my life is working out the details. If there is one thing I’ve learned in the last 5 years since my divorce, it is that things always have a way of working out and it is usually in a much better or more manageable way than I imagined, even if it isn’t perfect. I need to step back and trust more that this will continue to be so. Even if things go badly, my worrying about it won’t change anything. It also makes me and those around me miserable.
Lesson 3: Laugh. This needs really no explanation. 3-year-olds laugh enthusiastically and with abandon. As an adult, finding the humor and hilarity in even the most awkward or troublesome situations can often diffuse tension and release stress. Plus, it can be a whole lot of fun.
Lesson 4: Hang out with those you love. At three, I was very fortunate. My mother lived with my grandparents while she worked to save enough money so she could go to college. My grandparents owned a small department store in the rural Pacific Northwest community where we lived. I spent nearly all of my time with my grandparents either on their property or with them at the store. Later, when my mother eventually went back to school, I spent plenty of time in institutionalized daycare and I made good friends there. To this day, though, my best an most enjoyable memories were of the times I hung out with Grandpa while he went about his daily tasks. No fancy “play dates”. No movies. No trips to this or that whatever Funville. Just time together every single regular, ordinary day. These memories are the happiest for me now. I need to make sure I make the time to “just hang” with those who are most important to me. This is very different than rushing to and from planned activities with loved ones.
Lesson 5: Explore and Play. This is what kids do, don’t they? Without the aid of a gaming system, television, or lessons filling every non-school waking hour, Kia create things to do and games to play. They explore ideas, the backyard, the tool shed. As adults, we can too easily fall into the trap of going, doing, being and providing for everyone else that it is no longer fun. We lose our playfulness and our curiosity. We need to take time to just play. One little known fact from Three-Year-Old World? Coloring isn’t just fun, it’s incredibly therapeutic. If you don’t believe me, go get a coloring book and a big box of crayons and try it. Even better, color while hanging out with someone you love.
I wish time weren’t flying by like a madwoman racing Mach 5 with her hair on fire. I wish, in a way, to be three again. Chasing chickens and following grandpa around the yard as he irrigated the property and fed the dogs without a care in the world except to be happy and have fun. I know I can’t make time stand still and it would be foolish to disregard all responsibilities and obligations of adult life, but my 3-year-old self knew how to take each day at at time and live it to the utmost. I can learn from that person I used to be, by following these five lessons.
What lessons would your 3-year-old self teach you?