Your Only Goal Is to Arrive
When our son was a year old, my pregnant wife and I endured a grueling day of travel from northern Michigan to Los Angeles, where we lived at the time. A canceled flight and a missed connection led to five hours in the Detroit airport with a squirmy child whose undiagnosed ear infection had kept any of us from sleeping the night prior.
The fun was just beginning when our flight home finally took off. As changes in cabin pressure inflicted cochlear agony, my son didn’t just cry — he let loose desperate, primal screams that could not be extinguished with hugs, Juicy Juice, or M&M’s. His anguish was so extreme that fellow passengers zoomed right past anger and straight to incredulous pity. Somewhere over Wyoming, the kind woman next to us held the demon boy and his attention by pointing at clouds out the window. Finally, after a 16-hour travel day, we landed at LAX and sheepishly mumbled our apologies and thanks to those around us.
The next morning, I shared my hellish tale with my colleague Jen, whose older children had taught her parenting strategies I hadn’t yet learned. I also apologized for not working on the project I was supposed to review over the weekend.
“Don’t worry about it,” Jen said. “When you travel with babies, your only goal is to arrive.”
I asked her to elaborate. “Well, traveling with kids is a whole different thing than traveling by yourself,” she said. “Forget about napping, reading a book, or checking email. Your only job is to keep the baby safe and as comfortable and quiet as possible. If you show up with your children alive, you’ve succeeded.”
I kept this simple yet profound concept in mind during 100% of our subsequent trips with our young children. It didn’t make those flights fun per se, but the mantra helped to keep my priorities in line.
Last week, as I read an article encouraging people to use the coronavirus quarantine to achieve something “extraordinary” with their lives, Jen’s advice came screaming back to mind. Today’s flight, dear friends, is very much delayed: not by hours, but months. Travel conditions are—to put it mildly—suboptimal. Each of us should have in mind only one goal: to arrive on the other side in one piece.
Because our reality has changed, we also need to change the metrics by which we judge our success. If Satisfaction=Experience–Expectations, and much of the experience is out of our control, now is the time to make sure our expectations are realistic and achievable.
Expect delays. Expect crying babies. Expect to sit on the tarmac of human biology for most of the summer, staring out the window at a cloudless sky, thinking, “Why the hell aren’t we taking off?” The flight crew will run out of peanuts, headphones, and Sprite Zero. The toilets will overflow, and — as we already know — toilet paper will disappear.
Your job is to maintain sanity, stay healthy, and — where you can — offer kindness to your fellow flyers. (No, this doesn’t mean you have to hold someone else’s baby for a few months.) Only a realistic clarity of mission will keep you above the fray. Your neighbors will freak out. Journalists will predict the end of the world. And the children who used to terrorize you on planes will force you to watch High School Musical 2 over and over.
Perhaps most insidious of all, online bro-tivational gurus will preach at you to carpe that diem and use this opportunity to write your novel, reclaim your beach body, or run a marathon in your living room. Granted, there are a small number of ninjas who could learn calligraphy in a POW camp or write a bestseller in coach class. But for the rest of us, now is absolutely the wrong time to take on unreasonably ambitious goals. When you’re trying to hang onto a job or file for unemployment while homeschooling your kids, arranging care for an elderly parent, and bathing only occasionally, you are already operating at a very high level.
So forgive yourself for the three dinners you had last night, the gray roots, and that goofy home haircut. (It’s a great time to be bald!) Forget the motivational nonsense, and — for the love of all things self-preserving — turn off the gosh-darn news. Here, I’ll summarize it for you: Things are bad. They’re going to stay bad for quite a while. We’ll text you when it’s over. In the meantime, relax. No, I don’t advocate numbing yourself until August, but if you need a glass of chardonnay, a half-pint of Chunky Monkey, or a full season of Tiger King to get you through, go for it. Just make sure these remain a “treat” and not your baseline (or breakfast).
There are undeniable superheroes out there right now: doctors, nurses, the workers getting food to the shelves, and those politicians serving their constituents instead of themselves. But for most of us, our role is to stay home and care for ourselves and those around us. We can do our best within the controllable elements of the experience: Get eight hours of sleep. Meditate. Stretch. Take a walk (while keeping your distance). Secure your own mask before securing the mask of your child. Literally.
If you’ve got that covered, look for ways to brighten someone else’s day. Write a thank-you note to the mail carrier. Leave the sanitation workers Gatorade and some antibacterial wipes. If you have an extra few bucks, donate to the local food bank. But please don’t beat yourself up about not using the quarantine to “live your best life” or start a real estate business in your pajamas.
When the plane finally lands, no one around you is going to remember if you finished that book proposal. All they’ll care about is whether you maintained your cool and kept your child from puking all over their chinos. Take it from an insecure workaholic who has, for far too long, equated self-worth with productivity: It’s not about what you get done right now. This journey is going to be arduous. Anything you accomplish beyond making it through in one piece is gravy.
You know what will be exceptional? Surviving and arriving.