I learned this mental exercise as a new parent
My tired, bloodshot eyes stared down at my screaming baby. My ears were ringing from the nonstop crying. My neck, shoulders, and arms ached from carrying him. My legs were sore from pacing the room.
For the past few weeks, I had only gotten about 4 hours of sleep each day, split up by roughly 1 hour sessions. It was typical of any parent with a newborn, but it was physically and emotionally exhausting.
I looked down, smiled, and thought, I could do this all night. Just a minute ago, I was waiting for this nightmare to end and didn’t know how much more I could take.
So what changed?
We all have our moments of torture
Throughout life, all of us have unbearable moments. They could be physically or mentally agonizing. We can’t wait for it to be over.
A painful breakup, a bitter fight, a draining work project, a stressful situation… there are endless scenarios that we wish we could skip or fast-forward through.
For me, it was the sleepless nights with a newborn. I had done it 2 years ago with my first child, and now I’m in that phase again with my 2nd child. I want to fast-forward through the nights of feeding, burping, changing diapers, cleaning, and pacing. To be honest, I would probably skip the entire 1-2 months if I could.
People tell me that I’ll miss these moments when the kids are older. I can’t predict the future, but I’m going to guess that’s a big NO for me. I don’t miss those days with my first kid (even though he’s only 2). Who knows, maybe I’ll miss it when he’s a teenager.
But that thought doesn’t do anything for me. However, another thought does.
I’m scared to death of dying
I think most people are afraid of dying. I’m not sure, there’s no way of really quantifying or understanding their fear. But I think I have all the normal fears associated with it.
I’m afraid of the physical experience of death and the possible pain involved. I’m afraid of the regret I’ll feel for not being able to do all the things I wanted to do, or to not have mattered or made a difference in the world. I’m afraid of being alone. I’m afraid of the transition to whatever is next.
In short, I can freak myself out when I think about death for a long time, so I usually avoid it. I think most of us do in order to get through life.
But it since it’s one of my greatest fears, it comes in handy in the moments of struggle. Because what can be worse than what I’m dealing with right now?
I think about my deathbed wish
As I’m carrying my baby around the room trying to drown out his crying with my draining SHHHH sounds, I go through a mental practice where I think about my deathbed.
In this scenario, I die from some disease so I have time to reflect.
I’m in my last few hours. For the most part, life has been good, but there are definitely regrets. I’m not super old (whatever that number is in your head), so I could’ve had several more healthy years ahead.
Then supernaturally, I’m given an offer. I could extend my life by one day. Or maybe it’s a week, or a month. Would I do it?
Of course! What’s the catch?
I have to relive a past experience in my life.
Yes, of course I’ll do that.
There’s more to it. I have to relive an uncomfortable experience – specifically, the experience I’m going through right now.
On my future deathbed, I’m given the opportunity to extend my “life experience” by only reliving these nights of caring for a crying baby.
The answer is yes, I’ll do it.
What if it’s just to live one more day, and it’s the current one of the least sleep and most crying?
What if it’s to just extend my life a few hours, and those few hours is to relive this moment in the middle of the night where I’m feeding a bottle, cleaning up poop, and rocking my baby back and forth?
Then I imagine that’s what is happening now. I’ve been given the chance to live a few more hours, my last hours, and it’s caring for this baby in the middle of night.
How it changes my current moment in time
I want to stretch those hours out as long as I can.
My eyes are stinging from the lack of sleep, but at least I can still open them to see my baby. My ears feel like they’re bleeding from the crying, but at least I can still hear his voice. My neck, shoulders, and arms are aching from carrying him, but at least I can still feel his small warm body. My legs are sore from the pacing, but at least I can still walk in the bedroom my child grows up in.
I instantly become grateful for the time I have, no matter how uncomfortable it is, because I realize that it’s not guaranteed. In a separate post, I explore the early death of my father and how he never got the chance to see my grow up.
In this mental exercise, I think about the reasons I chose to take on these few extra hours of life. It’s to be alive. It’s to see my son, no matter how annoying he is right now. So I start finding joy in all the attributes of being alive in that moment.
Since I view these as the last hours of my life, I savor everything. Every feeling of discomfort and pain is a reminder that I’m still alive and have the ability to feel. For better or for worse, I won’t ever have this exact experience again, so I notice everything, absorb everything, and appreciate everything. It gives me resilience to endure and enjoy difficult situations.
Yes, it’s an odd mental exercise. It’s a weird way to develop gratitude. It’s similar to that notion of living everyday as if it were your last. But this one is a little more real and visceral for me.
It doesn’t always work. Sometimes, it’s just tough. But sometimes, it makes it a little bit easier.
I admit it’s also a little bit dark. My wife even commented, “So you’re comparing parenthood to death?”
No. Well, kind of. Sure.
But the point is that I’m going to go through this experience regardless. I can either dread it, complain about it, and feel miserable the whole way through. Or I can go through that same experience with gratitude, joy, and resilience.
All it takes for me is a simple thought exercise.