by Sydney McCall Patel, Marriage and Family Therapist, Marin County, California
Risk Vs. Comfort
I have a tendency to fall into a vapid black hole when looking in the mirror. It completely sucks me right in. I can study myself for a disturbing amount of time and the more I stare, the more ever increasing lines I see in my skin. It can be depressing. But somewhere deep inside, part of me recognizes how much I’m missing the point when I get bogged down. Acknowledging in an honest way our own aging process, not judging or resisting it, can gift us clarity. It can be our fire. The creases in our skin are our personal reminders to live with maybe a bit more intention and abandon.
Being a parent is rough on the body. It seemed as though I aged five years in the one after my son was born. The countless nights of little sleep, eating his nasty leftovers, or sometimes forgetting to eat, whatever I was doing was a reminder I was now taking a backseat to this newfound love, something I would do a million times over. Parenting is wonderful and extraordinarily lopsided. We are their caregivers and if we aren’t careful, we can forget that our wants and dreams also need tending to.
Our age lines can be our clue to take risks we might not otherwise choose if we felt we had forever to live. When I was five years old my parents best friend died of cancer. It was devastating and shook them way out of their comfort zone. Inspired by his death and without a plan or a reliable source of income, they picked up and moved to the south of France for a year, a long held lofty dream. Their friends thought they were nuts.
After they landed they struggled with their identities, not knowing anyone or being clear at all what work would look like. But that year entirely changed the course of their lives. My father used the slower pace of life to write his first book and then miraculously became a teacher all across Europe. In just one year they discovered a true home away from home, one that added perspective and excitement for decades to come.
Of course there was great privilege in this pursuit and it was certainly challenging for me and my brothers at times, but my memories of such adventures are undoubtedly the best from my childhood. We were doing something wildly enlivening together. Their courage showed me that as much as it scared me, sometimes life was better without a plan. My parents are in their 70’s and 80’s and even now when they travel they leave as much of the trip without any plans or reservations as possible. Valuing spontaneity they are sure to always come back nourished by real adventure. Their friends still think they are nuts.
Life is fundamentally uncomfortable, there is ultimately nothing to hold onto and yet most of us are comfort seekers. We work hard to create cozy environments for our children and ourselves so we experience an elusive feeling of safety. But what if we strive to live in a more honest and less snug way, if we straddled being on the edge and comfort simultaneously?
As a psychotherapist I observe many of my clients being fully dedicated to providing a secure environment for their children. The issue is that this is at the cost of their own personal drives, and perhaps those of their children. When foregoing our own adventure impulses, adventure becomes something we left behind in our 20’s and our imagination. So many of us believe sacrificing our wild instincts is simply part of parenthood rather than something that could enhance it. Our lives become dedicated to demanding full time jobs where we earn the income to finance such security. From what I see it seems the consequence of prioritizing such a safe environment can be a great deal of dissatisfaction and resentment towards those we provide for.
Holding our own death close, letting its reality seep in through the wrinkles of our skin can help us live with more aliveness. Our aging bodies are our corporeal reminders to pay attention to what matters most. I’ve witnessed both in my own family and those I hold close, that when we carve out lives with more unknowns, more exploits, the rewards are plentiful.
And perhaps the more we access our mortal fire to pursue romantic notions of what we want our life to be, the more we inspire our kids. We can empower them at an early age to tolerate risk and grow from it. It gives them strength and courage when we face such challenges if we are there for them along the way. The wrinkles we want to deny can be our reminders to pursue such lofty dreams. If we are lit up as parents, as a family, then hopefully we are instilling in our kids something more valuable and honest than security.