“Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone?”
No, Joni Mitchell, it don’t. Not always.
For a couple of years now, my wife and I have occupied a sweet spot in the life of our family. Our boys will turn 11 and 8 in the first part of next year. We’re past the physically difficult stage with them: They can feed and entertain themselves if they wake up earlier than us on a Saturday morning, and playing with them no longer requires us to crawl on all fours pushing a toy train or race car across a hard floor.
Those younger, more demanding days are (mostly) fond memories now. But at the time, as another saying goes, the years were short but the days could be awfully long.
On the other hand, we haven’t yet experienced the crackup of their teenage years — the emotionally difficult stage. I remember one of my old pastors describing once how his own preteen son would still hold his hand while walking in public, and how he knew those days were numbered.
At the time, I understood what he meant on an intellectual basis. But as my older son, then my only one, was still just a toddler, his observation didn’t have all the emotional resonance it does now.
Then there are our own parents. All four of them are still relatively young and healthy. They’re still unquestionably the ones helping us — with child care, with advice — and not the ones being helped.
But we’ve already watched our grandparents, all eight of them, grow older and less self-sufficient toward the end of their lives. We have seen aging. We know a pleasant youthfulness — whether our children’s, our parents’ or our own — won’t last forever.
So we count ourselves lucky not only to be in this sweet spot, but to be aware that we’re in it.
And we know not everyone gets to be so lucky. We know there can be heartbreak and loss within these very years, or before a child or parent can even reach them. We know heartbreak and loss can come anytime. We can’t take for granted that our current trajectory will continue.
In many ways, that knowledge informs my work. Statistics are an aggregation of personal stories, and gloomy statistics about children struggling at school or with mental illness, about parents struggling to find or keep a job, about grandparents struggling to find quality care, represent a lot of personal stories that could have turned out better. Finding ways to help people live happier stories is important to me.
I’m also the kind of person who makes plans: who writes down budgets, who sets goals, who saves and invests for the future. But I’ve learned the one thing that you shouldn’t plan for, that you shouldn’t reserve for tomorrow, is gratitude.
I’m not arguing for instant gratification. They may begin with the same first few letters, but there’s a world of difference between gratitude and gratification. And, being human, we get them backward far too often.
Putting off a small pleasure today for something more meaningful or satisfying tomorrow is a sound approach, but we must make time to be thankful here and now. Yet, how often do we do the opposite?
I realize the start of this piece might have sounded like bragging about my own self-awareness, but I’m far from perfect here. Too often, as a future-oriented optimist, I’m guilty of expecting so much from tomorrow that I don’t notice all the good already around me. Others, drawn toward nostalgia, can be equally blind to the present as they pine for yesteryear.
If nothing else, be thankful this week for an annual occasion to know what we’ve got, before it’s gone.
Kyle Wingfield is president and CEO of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation: www.georgiapolicy.org.