My son came out of his room one recent night afraid of dying. In his expression of fear said one of those lines that make your eyes widen incredulously at the profound thoughts of a child. With tears flowing, he said, "I'm afraid of wasting my life." I repeated the words back to him at a slower pace so that he could hear himself and so that I could take in what he was grappling with at eight years old. After expressing awe at the complexity of what he was feeling, what I wanted to say was, "we all struggle with this, James." I then thought of saying, "if we are going to trouble ourselves with fears, this one might actually be a good one to have!" Of course, I didn't say that to him, but I did fumble over some words about why it is so valuable to follow our passions, to do what we are called to do and how this calling may change throughout our lifetime. I then dropped into kid friendly material and listened to how he felt he could waste his life and assured him that he wouldn't. I said that knowing who he already is...what I've seen him value in the short, eight years of his big life...that it would be impossible.
I awoke in the morning with the conversation rising in my mind with the morning light. Of course, as kids do, he awoke in the morning with fresh thoughts and ready for a new day at school. On the train ride to the city, as I stared out the window at the flickering images of sun sparkling on the passing suburban to urban snow covered landscape, I felt my son's urgency as bright as the sun on snow. I thought about how throughout our lives we confront our mortality and seek the path that brings us meaning and how what defines our life as meaningful changes. I felt my own longing for my journey to be purposeful and how that intention can get caught. Sometimes we are on a path but still find ourselves feeling stuck and knowing there is something even more true for us to arrive at. This is a good thing. We are actually fully alive when we experience this place, as unpleasant as it can feel in the moment.
My son shared his frustration at not wanting to spend time learning what he knew he would never use later on. When we know that there is a greater way of utilizing our life, of doing what we are meant to do, we can rightfully feel impatient and a deep urgency to make a change. Often we arrive at a place where we can feel the potential, but can't yet know how to shift into gear and see it realized. But the key word is "yet." My child, just like my smaller self, can't grasp that some things we have to go through to keep arriving at the next greater place. And "keep arriving" is what it is, because if what we are after is deep and meaningful, we really don't ever arrive. We just keep taking the next shuffle, stride, or leap to the subsequent higher place. Along the way, it helps to know that the distance covered depends on many conditions, a great number of which are out of our control. When we are in the shuffling phase, it can feel like inertia and, yet, something is still happening if we pay attention. If I could say something more to my son, in a language he could understand, it would be just that...to keep paying attention and to trust in himself and in forces larger than himself because things don't happen by our will alone. Something gradually manifests if we treat that inertia, boredom, frustration, or fear we feel with an open heart and with kindness that is curious about its own self. We can check in with how something feels in the body to hear its deeper truth; we can ask questions and practice patience as we wait for the answers to surface. If we can remember to stay open to the heart's longing that flows steadily underneath the stuck place, we can hear what the next best action is.
My son's fears echo what so many of us experience throughout our lifetimes. I won't burden him with the truth that this is one he will revisit many times. What I can hope for is that he finds an easier relationship to it each time it knocks at the door. The fear of death can help us feel the deep urgency to want to live fully. If we meet the fear and really look at it, we can be liberated from it and live with true freedom, the kind no one can take away. We all need to be reminded in those moments of panic, restlessness, frustration, or longing that there is nothing greater to do than to keep paying attention, being kind, and curious. And maybe, we can take comfort in remembering what we learned in grade school and what my son has yet to learn...that energy is neither created nor destroyed. What we put out in our lives got its inertia or beginnings from somewhere, gets repeatedly transformed, and goes out somewhere. The form might look different, but it is never wasted and it certainly never dies. It is what we do with our energy while we have it that matters and if we care to continually ask the question of what is meaningful at every age, we are on a very good path.