“...Don't stop this train, Don't for a minute change the place you're in, and don't think I couldn't ever understand, I tried my hand"- John Mayer
The holiday season is usually filled with so much counting - days till Christmas, hours until the ball drops, numbers on the scale we are told to lose after the New Year. In our family, it’s also the time of year when both of my children (and myself and husband and now our dog) were born, so it can feel like, for 2 months straight, we are inundated with numbers and dates and counting.
But if I really think about it, the fixation with numbers & counting has been there for me since childhood, far outside of the holiday season. I remember as a kid, feeling if I tapped my foot three times on one side, I’d need to tap the same on other side - because that surely meant good things would happen and bad things wouldn't. I’d count down the number of days until an important event and then, during that event, the number of days (or hours) until it was over. I used to obsessively think about “how many more years until” when it came to certain events in my life that were important - or scary - to me... how many more years until my sister graduated high school and moved away; how many more days until summer vacation, graduation, 21st birthday; how many more days until the big test/race/etc. And as an adult, I find myself playing this “numbers game” when it comes to age…how many years could I expect to have left with my grandparents, and then my own parents, and my pets? This type of counting really threw me for a loop when our children were born premature. Both of our kids now had an assortment of different ages...gestational ages, adjusted ages, “actual” ages; we were bombarded with a whole host of new forms of measurement & statistics...milliliters of milk drunk, exact weight right after these milliliters of milk had been drunk, oxygen levels, breathing rate, temperature; and given pretty strict instructions to KEEP ON COUNTING. Until …at one very specific (and in my opinion arbitrary) point in time …when we were told in no uncertain terms to simply STOP COUNTING (because age 2 is apparently the “magic number” when your child is no longer allowed to be considered “premature”). Congratulations, based on just one number, your child is now "Normal." And if you can’t or find it hard to adjust to this…. well then clearly there must be something wrong with YOU…let’s just call it postpartum or anxiety shall we?
But how can we be expected to simply stop, and let go, when most of us have been trained and programmed for so long (not only through the experience of prematurity) but as students, athletes, employees - to navigate our lives around such numbers? For so many of us, certain numbers and measurements have formed the backdrop of how we are taught to live our lives and even measure our self-worth. Grades, scores, times, heights, weights, "normal curves" are all what we are taught to use to determine if we are “acceptable,” capable of “fitting in" and hence, functioning well in the world around us. Humans are a social species, we want to fit in, and if it means crunching the numbers to do it, then you better believe we will. So, these numbers were not only forced upon my own family from the moment our babies entered the world early (and told that basically our children's lives, and hence our own lives, depended on them); they have been reinforced for ALL of us since the moments we were all born. By the time we are adults, the neural grooves have already been worn down pretty well, and the pathways programmed and familiar.
Recently, I have found myself wondering more and more about not only WHY this is the case, but also IF I even want it to be the case anymore in my life. True, in one sense, numbers provide very useful standards of measurement – a way of making sense of and organizing such a complex world and varied mix of people within it. And in another sense, from a scientific standpoint, these numbers and measurements allow us to conduct the research and form the theories that quite literally save lives. But beyond that, and even within that, must we always hold onto them so rigidly? For myself, I've realized I hang on to some of these numbers and attachment to counting and measuring to provide a sense of comfort, and even false sense of control, in a world in which I realize we sometimes have very little. Take our dog, for example; we were never given his definite age when he was adopted– the foster said one thing, the vet said another, and we had our own opinions. So, I found myself constantly recounting and renegotiating the numbers until a found a suitable age range that we could expect him to live until. The truth was, I was just so scared to lose him and hanging onto any (false) sense of control that might make me feel better. And I think this is, in a sense, what numbers have done and have represented to me (and maybe to all of us) at times – a false sense of comfort and control in a world in which we might have very little. But despite perhaps the immediate or short-term sense of comfort these numbers provided me, left in its wake have also been a whole host of other side effects that were not helpful for me in other ways - anxiety, rigidity, detachment, competitiveness.
So, I have made the decision to take a step back from it all. And I’ve noticed that this decision has instead brought a myriad of health benefits for me - both mentally and physically. Greater feelings of freedom, acceptance of and allowance to be more myself…and allowance for my children (and dogs!) to do the same. Greater appreciation for the things that aren’t measurable or even tangible – quite literally “stopping to smell the roses,” and greater acceptance of the things/changes/aspects of life that are not within my control – one of those being death. Being officially “released” from the world of academia, competitive sports, and even prematurity has made it somewhat easier. But it’s still hard. For example, when I recently attempted to re-enter the world of competitive racing, I quickly found myself being tempted to dive right back in again. And when I noticed the unnecessary stress, and strain, and comparison and rigidity this brought back, I had to make a pretty conscious effort to pull back again.
So, perhaps we can all take a look at our lives, see how deeply these number grooves have been worn into our brains, and decide whether it could be helpful to let some grass grow in over them and start forging some new paths instead...or even start traveling where there is no path at all. I have noticed in my own life, that there needs to be more of a balance between the counting and calculating….and the “just being.” I do best when I learn to “zoom out” and take a look at the areas where I do find myself gripping too hard, attaching too tightly, or basing a disproportionate amount of my self-worth on certain (often arbitrary) standards. Things like taking up a regular meditation practice; incorporating mindfulness into our regular everyday activities; noticing those tempting, habitual, numbers-driven thoughts and gently steering away from them & replacing them with other thoughts or phrases or focuses; treating ourselves and others with compassion, as fellow human beings and counterparts on this journey, rather than “just numbers;” and allowing ourselves to lean in and become vulnerable when all those thoughts of uncertainty and unpredictability arise, can all prove helpful. Or, in a more practical sense – run without a watch on, celebrate milestones that have nothing to do with numbers (grades, scores, even dates), and step off the scale.
My grandmother used to have a magnet on her refrigerator that said “...count your life by smiles, not tears; count your life by friendships, not years.” Lately, I've been thinking about that little magnet and seeing it less as a little cliché saying that a grandmother has on a fridge, and really as more profound words to live by. It's not the numbers on a scale, dates on the calendar, dollars in the bank account that matter most – it’s the relationships in our lives, both with ourselves and others – that truly give life meaning. And this isn’t just my opinion, science has actually used numbers to prove this! And maybe we can even go one step further, by not even “measuring our lives” or “counting our friendships” at all, but instead focusing on the quality of those friendships (and other things in our lives), rather than the quantity, and putting more practice into the feelings rather than the counting, and the cherishing rather than the measuring. Because, in the end (whatever the age, date, or time that comes) will we really be thinking or want to be thinking, “Wow I can’t believe she managed to weigh X lbs. up until the very end. " Or, “82 ½…. she would have been so much more worthwhile if she had made it to 83?” Or “Gosh, we would have loved him/her so much more if only she/he could have kept running those times from college or finished that one race in just a minute faster or made just a few thousand dollars more each year." Can any of us not laugh (or maybe even cry just a little) imagining this?
And besides, what do we have to lose? If I'm being really honest with myself, no amount of counting, estimating or predicting in the world has ever really cushioned the blow of losing someone I love. But neither could it also have shown me or allowed me to predict some truly amazing things that have happened in life as well - seeing the healthy and wonderful unique human beings my children have turned into (not matter what their age - adjusted or "actual"), or experiencing how it feels to be running, watch-free, down a path in the redwood forests. It can be humbling (and a bit scary) to realize we have so little control – and that numbers on a scale, scores on a test, time at the finish line really mean so little in the grand scheme of things and to so much else on this planet. But it can also be freeing and liberating to let go - or to at least practice trying to - even if it’s just for a moment at a time, to breathe in the fresh air, feel the fall sun on our faces, listen to our children’s laughter or feel the warmth and closeness of those we love around us - without once looking at the clock.