Look on the Bright Side: How to Savor the Good

Justin Thomas, CFP®

Apr 5, 2021

Getting a new puppy in the middle of a pandemic was admittedly an impulsive decision. After all, we already had a dog, Luna, who had been the canine-in-chief of our household since 2005. All that changed when Oreo, a pudgy ten-pound pup the size of a football, bounded into our lives. Now, seven months later, 65 pounds and still growing, Oreo spends his days galumphing around the house like a linebacker looking for someone to tackle.

Before this interloper showed up, Luna, age 15, had eased comfortably into the role of dignified senior citizen. She takes naps. She monitors squirrel activity in the yard. She evinces a grown-up’s disdain for cheap thrills. Then came Oreo. He revels in cheap thrills and quick escapes. Every pungent new smell, every stolen sock, every scrap of forbidden food excavated from a previously undiscovered cranny in the kitchen is a matter of the utmost urgency. Frankly, it has been exhausting for us and downright alarming for Luna.

That was the drama of our summer, watching two mutts work out the kinks in a new relationship. There were skirmishes. Youth can’t help but challenge the status quo. Oreo would pounce around Luna, begging her to play, despite her yawning lack of interest. Every now and then, Luna would allow herself to be enticed into action. More often, she’d merely cock an eyebrow as if to say, “Kiddo, I’m tired just watching you.”

If not for the pandemic, I probably would have missed most of that. As a financial advisor, a competitive athlete, a husband and father of two active pre-teens, I was nothing if not tightly scheduled. My calendar was crammed with meetings, conferences, races, soccer tournaments, dance competitions, barbecues, picnics and cocktail parties. That is, I was tightly scheduled until the world screeched to a halt last March.

Then, like millions of others, I watched with something akin to disbelief as one obligation after another vanished amidst a spreading viral storm. At first, I felt a twinge of joy, followed by a pang of guilt. I’m an introvert in a world that celebrates the extrovert. Suddenly, I was cut free from a myriad of obligations that require small talk and other social niceties. I had something infinitely more precious, the gift of time.

This was no small miracle. How many years had I rushed from a sweaty morning workout to the shower then the office? How often had I barreled through a whirlwind of children’s activities on a Saturday, only to top off the day with a neighborhood dinner party? Once my schedule was stripped bare of some of that, life felt expansive like the night sky in the desert: quieter, deeper, slower.

Now, as the pandemic hopefully nears an end, I realize that I have an extraordinary opportunity to decide how to emerge from my cocoon. In fact, we all do.

First, of course, we need to mourn the tragedies wrought by the pandemic, the millions of lives lost and the millions who now struggle with long-term health problems. Some of us are grieving lost jobs, cancelled weddings, or lonely holidays. At the same time, it’s important to acknowledge that there have been some unexpected gifts given to us in this last year.

The Challenges of Parenting Through the Pandemic

As working parents, Julie, my wife, and I had made our peace years ago with the idea that we would miss a good bit of the fun and some of the significant moments of our children’s young lives. Once we started working from home last spring, we got to experience a lot more of both.

We had time for board games and for more hands-on parenting. Katelynn, my intensely competitive nine-year-old daughter, is learning what it means to be a good sport even when losing. Charlie, 12-years-old, was balking at doing chores until he figured out the critical algorithm required to satisfy parents: completed chores equals more hassle-free gaming time with his friends.

Having us home all day was meaningful for the kids, too, as they had front-row seats on the enigmatic world of adult work. Charlie and Katelynn learned some hard lessons about respecting our work boundaries–no interruptions during a conference call–but they also seem to have a new understanding and appreciation of how much effort and discipline it takes to earn a living.

Julie and I also had opportunities for deep discussions with our kids about subjects as varied and controversial as racial inequality, politics, freedom and responsibility. Which also meant I had to dig deep into my own heart until I was sure I’d struck my own moral bedrock. Those are important discussions to have when your kids are becoming aware of our fractured world and trying to make sense of it.

Deciding What to Preserve From Pre-Pandemic Life

All of which convinced me that we shouldn’t be so eager to hurry back to life as it was pre-pandemic. How often do we have the freedom to start anew? This may be a once-in-a-lifetime chance to shuck off a few layers of life’s barnacles. Is your book club a bore? RIP, book club. Tired of condo politics? Resign from the committee and take up pickleball. Maybe now is the time to figure out what you truly cherish in life.

I’m not alone in this idea that we should pause for a moment on this threshold. Justin E. H. Smith, a philosopher and historian, urges a rigorous pruning. In an essay published last year in The Point, he wrote: “Any fashion, sensibility, ideology, set of priorities, worldview or hobby that you acquired prior to March 2020, and that may…seem to you cumbersome, dull, inauthentic, a drag: you are no longer beholden to it. You can cast it off entirely and no one will care; likely, no one will notice.”

That’s a noble thought but, seriously, Mr. Smith, I wonder if you are married and what your wife might have to say about that notion. My wife is an extrovert for whom a year of isolation was wearisome. I reveled in the quiet; she missed the social swirl. Now, with the end of the pandemic in sight, Julie is revving her engines in anticipation of a burst of social activity, unfettered by masks. A physician assistant, she’s also starting a two-year doctoral program that will require hours of classwork and studying every week.

Looking Ahead to Post-Pandemic Life

What I mean is that crafting a new post-pandemic life will probably be more complicated than the philosopher suggests. Few of us have the freedom to prune our lives vigorously. Besides, taking a hatchet to your life can be reckless. Smaller, more mindful changes might be more significant over the long run. Julie, the kids and I will need to figure that out together as a family. It’s a process that will call for careful negotiation and compromise.

So how will we decide what to keep from our year- long COVID cloister and what to let go? Some of the best advice on the matter may come from the popular singer songwriter, Taylor Swift. In a documentary on her life that we recently watched with our kids, she sagely observed, “If you’re going to recalibrate everything, you might as well start with what you love.”

For me, that’s unhurried family time. Lots of families are lamenting frayed ties after a year in which they were driven apart by quarantine and, in some cases, by different political views. Our goal is to keep ties snug. Sunday dinners are a new tradition especially since my father, who is retired, decided to spend half his year here near us in Reno. We cherish his love, his wisdom and, from a practical standpoint, his help. He pitches in with the kids, picking them up every day after school and bringing them home. He needs us, too.

A classic Type A, I’d always believed in the discipline of precision scheduling. I’d perfected that skill back when I was a professional triathlete in my 20s, and it’s been a powerful asset in business—until last year. I had to learn how to be more adaptable. Real life often spills outside the margins of the scheduled time slot. That’s another gift of the pandemic, a new willingness to blur the once-sharp edges of my workday.

Last Wednesday, for instance, I took the afternoon off to take my son skiing, which I might not have done a year ago. I’m newly aware that he’s got only six years at home with us until he goes to college. The sun was shining. Some fresh new powder had dusted the slopes the night before, so off we went. It was glorious and memorable.

Looking back now, it seems to me that last year was full of priceless treasures worth savoring. I opened my calendar and blocked off a few more Wednesdays. What are you going to do when your life begins anew?

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