Yesterday, I sat on a beach watching my son as he filled a bucket with briny slop, his face a study in concentration. Then a wave came crashing in and swept the bucket away from us. After righting himself and collecting his bucket, he then set about his task again with a singular focus – scoop the sand, fill up the bucket. Repeat.
Sounds dreamy, doesn’t it? Yes, it is – but it’s not the whole story. As this is going on, I have to constantly remind myself: take it all in, be here now, remember this. Because the other half of my brain is wondering: did I put enough money into the parking meter, when will I have time to finish that report, who’s going to mind him on Friday, and what are we going to have for dinner this evening?
It’s a lot of work having children, and it’s easy to fall into a routine where all I’m doing is worrying about the next thing, and the next thing after that. They create an almost perpetual cycle of chaos in one’s life, a thousand trivial and not-so-trivial tasks that crowd out the days, pushing everything else into the background. But my toddler does not care that I may occasionally need to read, or work, or exercise. All that matters to him is now. And this is sometimes a useful reminder.
If parenthood has taught me anything, it’s that everything in life is a trade-off of some kind. Yes, you will have little moments of pure joy like the one above when all seems right with the world, but then you will lose other things too: things like sleep, hours of unfettered time, freedom to spontaneously wander or just disappear for a few days. It’s also taught me that maybe we place too much emphasis on freedom. We imagine that by “keeping our options open” we are somehow liberated, when in fact, too many options can be just as overwhelming as none at all.
Burn All The Boats
The story we’re told about Cortes is that when he reached the “New World,” he gave orders for his men to burn the fleet of ships that had brought them there. Why? Because he knew that given the option of retreat, his men would have no motivation to endure the difficulties that lay ahead. Only when that option was removed could they successfully forge ahead. We all have our “boats” that we cling to. It could be a job you’ve outgrown, a relationship that no longer works, an unrealistic fantasy that blinds you to the possibility in front of you. But only by burning the boat – by going all in – can we truly know or experience freedom.
In his memoir Seven Story Mountain, Thomas Merton describes his rebellious youth and the decision that led him in middle age to becoming a Catholic monk. It was a difficult decision, one he wrestled with his entire adult life. He describes in some detail that exact moment when he finally burned all his boats by entering the monastery: “Brother Matthew locked the gate behind me and suddenly I was enclosed in the four walls of my newfound freedom.” A curious way to think of freedom – four walls and a gate! But he understood that only by forgoing all other options was he finally able to follow his one true calling.
I’ve been thinking a lot about freedom since becoming a parent. Anyone who cares for another person – whether a child, an elderly parent, a sick friend – knows the constant juggle that it is. But we cannot avoid the reality of trade-offs, and we shouldn’t try to. Yes, we can do some things, but we can’t do everything. I understand now that facing and dealing with these limitations has been, and will continue to be, a significant part of my life’s education.
What is freedom anyway, except the ability to be fully present in one’s life, and to accept each moment exactly as it is. Freedom from the tyranny of choice that provides many options, but gives the gnawing feeling of somehow missing out. Right now, I have probably fifteen things on my mind, all needing some form of attention. So I have to gently remind myself of what is really important. Because if I’m not choosing what that is, then chances are, someone else is choosing it for me.
Scoop up the sand. Fill the bucket. Repeat.