Waiting for When
When you graduate high school…when you get to college…when you get a job. We keep our children focused on the future. It is a cultural obsession. We rush through our day-to-day lives, prepping them for “someday” when they will arrive at a point where they have enough financial security to avoid life’s suffering. With all eyes looking far ahead, our children learn that life is about waiting for when.
But this orientation creates disembodiment. We leave the present moment and live in an imaginary future. Because the future is unknown, this disembodiment causes a great deal of anxiety. While stressful periods happen, this future-focused obsession makes it neverending. It is hard to enjoy life when concern about the unknown consumes our daily existence.
I spent the first half of my life waiting for when my life would start. I believed I had to complete my education and establish my career before settling down and having the family I desired. I achieved the success markers defined by our culture: college degree, good salary, management position. I raced to each goalpost as fast as I could with blinders on. But as I approached my mid-30s and my workload and travel schedule consumed my days, I hit an emotional and physical wall.
How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.
– Annie Dillard
The achievements and accolades soon felt empty. I realized that I had not made time for the things that really mattered to me; I assumed they would just happen without much effort. So, I stepped off the hamster wheel of busyness, resigned from my job, and refocused my life to align with my values.
It was the best decision I ever made. I look upon my three daughters with tremendous joy and gratitude. Based on my experience of waiting for when, I fiercely guarded their childhoods so they could play, explore and be with grandparents and friends. I was unwilling to trade the present moment for the demands of academic achievement. I admit that the cultural tide was strong, and I felt like a salmon swimming upstream—but it was so worth it.
The price we are paying to prepare our children for our cultural definition of success is high, and the toll on mental health is heartbreaking. Multigenerational supports have been ignored. Family relationships have become transactional rather than nurturing, with interactions centered around lists of tasks and calendar events.
We reinforce the dictates of schools and organizations in our homes, even though they overwhelm and exhaust us. We sacrifice our family time and our children’s unique interests to ensure tasks are completed. We are shocked by how fast time passes and regret how we ignored so many opportunities to enjoy life.
In 1951, Alan Watts wrote The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for the Age of Anxiety. Sadly, the title still applies to our world today. He noted:
“The more my actions are directed towards future pleasures, the more I am incapable of enjoying any pleasures at all. For all pleasures are present, and nothing save complete awareness of the present can even begin to guarantee future happiness.”
Life only happens in the present moment. There is no future meaning in life. Meaning can only be found moment-to-moment, situation by situation, and person by person. Each one of us has the capacity to co-create our life using our innate gifts, and what we see we can contribute to our circumstances. The decisions we make in all these moments make our lives meaningful and define who we are.
So much of life cannot be planned. It just happens. If we have blinders on, we miss these opportunities. Vocational psychologist, Dr. John Kruboltz’s theory of “Planned Happenstance” says that indecision is a normal response to an uncertain future. He advised his clients to get out into the world, do things and meet people. In this way, “happenstance” or unexpected opportunities come about if they are open to seeing them.
Imagine if our children learned to be open, explore things that interested them, and find people who could support them along the way? Imagine the aliveness they would feel from the adventure into uncertainty when they are in the driver’s seat. Freed from the constraints of our past perspectives, what contributions could they make to our world?
Waiting for when leads to a life of passive existence. The safety and security promised to our children if they follow a prescribed path is an illusion and limits human potential. The silver lining to the pandemic is that more of us are waking up to the realization that we no longer want to be disembodied; we want to be whole and human. The possibilities are endless if we live in the present, recognize the valuable contributions of each and every person and support our children in navigating their own way with community support. Let’s start now.