Feeling the Burn (of 44 Candles)

“I can’t wait until I’m 10!” my son told me as we were driving to his friend’s sixth birthday party. When I pressed him to tell me what was so special about 10, he relayed enthusiastically, “Just because I want to be 10!” As I watched him bowl at the party, which was only a few days before my own 44th birthday, I couldn’t get this conversation out of my head.

I suppose it’s natural to feel introspective on the (almost) eve of a birthday. It’s natural to think about another year gone and the one just ahead. It’s natural to wonder if the past year was all that it could have been. For me, though, I’m not only thinking about the last year; I find myself thinking about all of the “last years.” And with 44 looming large before me, I can’t help but wonder, “How the f**k did this happen?”

When we have kids, we’re told, “Don’t blink. It goes so fast.” My brother is quick to point out that parenting is about the longest days and the shortest years, but I don’t think these feelings are about parenthood. After all, I’ve only been a dad for six of these 44 years. The time was moving ridiculously fast well before the kid came along. So, as the day rapidly approaches, I’m feeling burned by the candles. Too many. Too fast.

I’m keenly aware that age is but a number. I’m aware that “life is what we make it.” I believe that. I truly do. I write about making life fulfilling and rewarding. If one of my friends came to me feeling badly about a 44th birthday, I’d likely slap them silly! I’d say, “What are you talking about? Look at all that you’ve done!” I’d go on and on about how young 44 is. We’d also talk about why they are feeling that way and what kinds of actions can be taken to alleviate the feelings now and hopefully avoid them 365 days from now at 45.

But, we’re our own harshest critics, right? It’s easier to dispense advice than it is to follow. And, frankly, it’s not that I feel old. In a way, it’s almost the opposite. I feel too young to be 44. I can’t possibly be 44. It’s cliché, but there’s so much that I’ve wanted to do by now that remains unachieved. I feel unaccomplished. Those sliding door choices that I made in my 20s and 30s have become more relevant, and the results of choosing one door over the other echo ever more loudly in my head. And that’s my problem (and probably the problem I’d end up discussing with my hypothetical friend above!).

The quest to achieve, to do and to be “something” has come at the price of simple pleasures. I’m talking about being able to enjoy moments that aren’t even moments unless you notice them. While that reads too much like “stop and smell the roses,” I want to think it’s bigger than that. Maybe, however, it really is that simple. I’m so focused on “next” that I don’t even notice the now or the path to get there. We’ve all been told, “it’s about the journey and not the destination.” Well, I’ve been far too focused on the destination.

Being focused on what I haven’t done, coupled with the inability to acknowledge what I have actually accomplished, results in candles not symbolizing a celebration, but instead a reminder of perceived failures. It results in a burn. And, there’s no sugar coating it…that can be a terribly hurtful feeling. As I’ve focused so hard on “the destination,” I can’t help but wonder what simple pleasures I’ve missed. This isn’t to say that my earlier thoughts about the “Year of the Experience” are wrong. Quite the opposite. I need to be open to a broader definition of “experience.” I need to allow for simplicity in “the experience.” Perhaps we all do. It can’t always be about climbing Everest.

One of the pitfalls of social media (beyond the obvious “anti-social media” stuff that especially occurs when tragedy strikes, see: Whitney Houston Tweets) is the perception that everyone is doing more than you are. It’s easy to get caught up in this. While you genuinely feel great for the success of friends, the fallout is that you can end up feeling badly about your own achievements (and much has been written about this). A friend recently told me that she was “living vicariously through my Facebook posts.” This comment made me reconsider what I posted, as I didn’t want appear like I was bragging about my experiences.

I know that 44 is far from old. And it’s far from “over.” I recognize that. I’m not throwing in the towel and calling it a day. I’m not giving up. To heal the burns and avoid them in the future, however, I know that I need to change my focus. (Note: I’m not changing my perspective! This isn’t about that). I need not only to look right in front of me, but also just to the side and even behind me. I was recently discussing a difficult professional issue/situation I was having and my friend told me, “Seems like you’re in a really fortunate position.” In a moment, she altered my focus. And I’m grateful for that.

While I need to work on my focus, I also need to accept that I’m always going to struggle with what I’ve done versus what I want to do. I think it is just part of who I am. What I am. I have big visions. I have big plans. The trick is to avoid the burns of the candles and appreciate the beauty in the glow. The trick is to find the way to achieve the dreams without missing the little things…like my kid bowling at a completely different kind of birthday party right in front of me.

And to my son, focus on being six my sweet boy. Ten will come soon enough.

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