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Extending the Tail End
If you’re 40 and your life expectancy is 80 and you read 10 books a year, you have 400 books left to read in your life. If you eat pizza once a week, that’s 2,080 more times you’ll eat pizza. Go on a nice vacation every other year? There’s only 20 more of those. Tim Urban, in The Tail End, writes about how instead of measuring time by, well, time - measure it by the number of occurrences you have left. But many experiences are concentrated in our early years. Tim Urban says 93% of the time he will spend with his parents had already happened by the time he graduated from high school.
I thought of The Tail End in March of 2020 when the COVID lockdowns were starting. I was living in an one-bedroom Manhattan apartment with my girlfriend of six months. My parents lived in the suburbs and invited us to stay until things quieted down. I hesitated, because I spent most of my life trying to get independence. I like the bustle and activity of the city; growing up in the suburbs was boring, there’s nothing to do. But the fact that there’s even less to do in a small apartment in quarantined Manhattan made the decision easier. And remembering The Tail End sealed the deal. Why not for one month?
One month turned into, well, a lot more months. We settled in. I did chores (without being told!). Weeding, shoveling snow, buying groceries, cooking and cleaning, we took over as much as possible. The responsibility felt satisfying. Providing for my parents made me appreciate my childhood. It felt good to spend time with them.
But living in close quarters is a pressure cooker. Sometimes it creates a great stew. Sometimes it blows out. As our stay lengthened, my girlfriend and I had to navigate relationships with my parents. Me, redefining my old one, her, building a new one.
My experience tended more to the pressure cooker blowing out. To be clear, my parents were and are great parents. They provided well and I got a great work ethic and set of values from them. I describe their parenting style as passive-aggressive laissez-faire. They won’t tell you what to do, they would just tell stories about people they thought were successful or unsuccessful. This worked well on a perceptive, competitive kid.
Unfortunately, while we all changed over the twenty-three years since I last lived under my parents’ roof, we still had the same attitude toward our relationship. My parents had settled into a comfortable existence and expected me to listen to them and not rock the boat.
From childhood, I had an ingrained sense of obedience and an expectation that they were right all of the time. This now mixed with my adult nonconformist views and penchant for problem-solving. The combination filled me with dissonance and disappointment. I didn’t think they were wrong, I thought they had to be gently corrected. “They just don’t know the facts, I just need to point out that they’re wrong, they’ll realize it and everything will be fixed.” Needless to say, my “pointing out errors” wasn’t received in the fashion that I intended.
“You’re underweight, the doctor says you have pre-diabetic markers and he’s never heard of a CGM?”
“Why do you think there’s mosquitos, you have stagnant water all over the property!”
“Just reset the router!” “Unplug it and then plug it back in!”
I built up a pedestal that they couldn’t fit on. From my childhood, I had formed a picture of my parents that they were perfect. Yet, my jaded forty-year-old eyes could only see the imperfections. I held to my idea of what a good son was and I expected them to behave to my idea of good parents.
I had changed, my mom had changed, my dad had changed, our circumstances had changed, yet we treated each other the same.
“No man ever steps in the same river twice, it's not the same river and he's not the same man.” - Heraclitus
Instead of using our previous dynamic to guide our relationship, we needed to adapt to our present circumstances. The goal was not to live by some half-remembered Confucian filial piety. What did I want? What did I want for my parents? I wanted communication and guidance. I wanted them to relax and be happy. So why was I more concerned about everything being done correctly?
The answer was simple: ego. I was more focused on solving the problems as I saw them than on our common purpose of harmony. I had to lose my ego to build a united family. This had to be the priority.
I used mindfulness to be more aware of my ego. I avoided conflict as much as possible, changing the channel to dodge the polarizing news (we wound up watching A TON of the Food Network). I still wanted to encourage my parents to live their best life, so I used positive reinforcement to convince them to exercise and eat better.
The focus on harmony and understanding in every interaction led to greater understanding. While I wasn’t successful a lot of the time, I noticed my parents no longer choosing their words carefully or giving me “that look”. I no longer felt stressed out about being in the same room with them. It was a work-in-progress - it still is a work-in-progress - but it’s working, and it’s progress.
My girlfriend, on the other hand, had a blank slate with my parents, having met them only once before, at Christmas. It could have been a disaster. She wasn’t sure how she would be accepted and moved to my parents’ house with some trepidation.
But there was nothing to worry about. Her pressure cooker created a tasty stew and she quickly captivated my parents. I would go downstairs to find her chatting away with my mom (usually embarrassing stories about my childhood). She started cooking recipes my dad found online. I began joking that my parents liked her more than me. My parents started telling me how much they liked her. I took the hint - four months after we moved, I proposed (and she said yes!) and then we married a month later.
After a year and a half, my wife and I returned to our apartment in Manhattan. I had spent more time with my parents than I have since my college years, combined. I’m appreciative of that time. That time gave me a better relationship with my parents, that we’re still working on. My wife also has a relationship with them that would not have been possible otherwise. We’re planning on seeing my parents more frequently. We’ve extended the Tail End just a little bit.
If you’re in your last 10% of time with someone you love, keep that fact in the front of your mind when you’re with them and treat that time as what it actually is: precious. - Tim Urban