When my kids were young, I developed a game. I called it the “three-to-five-year game.”
It’s simple. Just imagine your child as three years older. Then do it again as five years older. Each time I would play this little game with myself, I would see the stage of life my child was in at the time in a totally different light. The toddler would transform in my mind to a second grader; the boy asking for a new bike would turn into the young man with his hand out waiting for the car keys. Even the sassy teenager would bring flashes of a young adult packing her room to leave home.
Then I would ask myself, “What do I want to instill in them, or do with them, before that happens?” It’s amazing what just a little perspective can do.
Tragedy also has that effect on us.
When given a terminal diagnosis, in essence you are given information that most of us don’t have. A more exact accounting for the number of days you have left. You are forced to play the three-to-five-year game, but someone else set the parameters, and you’re now playing for keeps.
Viktor Frankl, in his book Man’s Search for Meaning, recounts the story of two women. To the first, he asked her age. To which she answered, “Thirty.” “No, you are not thirty but instead eighty and lying on your deathbed. And now you are looking back on your life, a life which was childless but full of financial success and social prestige.” He then invited her to imagine what it would feel like in that situation.
The woman imagined she had married a millionaire. Her imaginary new life was filled with parties and wealth. She lingered in the fantasy long enough to talk of flirting with men and teasing, then it turned to regret. “Looking back as an old woman, I cannot see what all that was for; actually, I must say, my life was a failure!”
He then invited a mother of a handicapped son, who suffered tremendously with grief over the loss of her other son. He had died at the tender age of eleven. Now, her life was spent caring for her handicapped boy. At one point she had attempted suicide, which landed her in the hospital and in contact with Dr. Frankl. Her life, she felt, wasn’t worth living, and she tried to convince her remaining boy to die with her. However, it was he that talked her out of it. He wanted to live.
Dr. Frankl then asked the woman to imagine the same thing — being eighty and looking back at her life. What did she see?
“I wished to have children and this wish has been granted to me; one boy died; the other, however, the crippled one, would have been sent to an institution if I had not taken over his care. Though he is crippled and helpless, he is after all my boy. And so I have made a fuller life possible for him; I have made a better human being out of my son.” At that point, tears began to flow as she realized that her life was indeed full of meaning. With that realization, she found peace.
Since we can’t see the future, as humans we need to envision what we want it to be. Frankl has a different spin on my three-to-five-year game.
Before you make a resolution to go to the gym more, or drop 20 pounds, would you imagine with me that our days are finite? Because they really are. Then let’s see how different, and more meaningful, we can make the coming year.
“Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.”