“I get sad coming back here seeing familiar places…”
A friend said this on Saturday. He is originally from here in Minnesota and was visiting from his current home in San Diego.
Our automatic response upon hearing him say this might be, “What for? Do you have regrets or bad memories?”
But he finished his sentence by saying, “…because I know I’m going to be leaving soon.”
My friend has fond memories of where he grew up, but visiting family and seeing his old house was a sweetness made bitter by the fact that this reunion was temporary.
I remember my last day working at the secondary school in Tanzania—soon to be returning to my home in Minnesota. I had been in this village about seven months, walking the same paths, passing the same students, entering the same buildings countless times. Yet on this last day, the tall grass blowing in the wind, each step of the dirt path, and every student interaction I had, were noticeably precious.
I realized I had gotten into a groove in my months at the school (or was it a funk?), walking by each building and student preoccupied by tasks I could be doing, plans I could be making, or simply daydreaming. But this final day the details of this environment were right in my face, because I could feel the end nearing.
Unfazed by mental distraction, I sauntered over to a group of students and lightly interacted, asking the adolescents about their interests, about their plans after school, and joking about my (mis)adventures trying to fit into their culture. It was one of the most meaningful days of many there. I was excited to be going home, but now I was also sad to be leaving all this beauty so clearly apparent—that this part of my life with all this beauty was over.
Related, I was recently dating someone. Our parting was amicable, but I was sad afterwards recalling vividly the best parts of this person and our relationship.
A breakup, a departure, or any recognition of drastic change, is a troubling reminder to us that all is mortal, that we can’t take the blessings of this life with us. Fear and hurt resist this truth and fuels the desire for these moments (with a former partner, at our former home) not to end—just as my fear of death will have me wish I was young again when I’m an old man. We want good things to last forever.
I think my friend tapped into a fear of mortality ingrained into the human condition. It encourages us to not face our mortality, to hover just below the level of presence and assume a false sense of permanence. There’s a comfortable numbness to it and perhaps a practical need, so that we can work on that project spared the sentimentality of existential crises.
Yet because we couldn’t escape the imminence of our departures, the beauty of the present was also inescapable for my friend and I. For him, every street, every house, every family member, and every moment visiting his old stomping grounds was richer now that he was visiting rather than living here.
Where we live often has us slip into “autopilot,” going about our day missing all the details. This delusion of permanence, unconscious of our limited time, has us take our moments, experiences, possessions, and relationships for granted. We may slunk into a mental state that compromises our priorities—neglecting family, service, and love in favor of thrill, grudge, gossip, righteousness, and simply daydream or other escape.
Conversely, my friend’s visit (and my last day at the school) allowed us to feel temporariness, and so we rang as much out of every precious moment as possible.
Isn’t everything temporary?
Many people who become terminally ill or who escape a health scare seek opportunities to express love, aware that time is too short to invest in anything else.
This prioritization doesn’t necessarily replace routine and certainly not work. In fact, I think we’d be spurred on by our desire for legacy and leaving the planet better than we found it.
So why wait until we’re knocking on death’s door to realize what’s important?
Face the fear of mortality and have our acknowledgement of temporariness move us to be our best self.