When Carpe Diem Feels Like Crappy Diem

When we are taking risks and growing and being challenged and transformed, fear and loss are a guaranteed part of life. Not because we’re doing it wrong. But because we’re doing it right.

“Daddy, I have butterflies.”

My oldest son, standing in a parking lot as dawn happens all around us—birds busy with a new day and the sun beginning to peak above the treetops. My oldest son—two spindly legs topped with a man-sized duffle bag and a too-big baseball cap—standing in front of a line of buses that will transport him to his first-ever day of wilderness camp.

An eight-hour trip.

Twelve days gone.

No communication with us.

Butterflies? I’d have been a sloppy mess. In fact, on the inside, I was a sloppy mess.

Afraid For Our Lives

Butterflies. Nerves. Anxiety. Terror. Different degrees of the same basic experience—fear.

Fear can be a nauseous nagging in the gut. Or that oh-my-God-I-don’t-want-to-do-this-but-there’s-no-way-out-of-it-now feeling of dread. Or a panic so bright the mind turns white and the heart hammers right out of your shirt.

As a therapist, I have dedicated much of my life to eliminating it. Fear can become the plot of our lives—avoiding it, managing it, and, torturously, fearing it. Fear can paralyze a life and when it’s debilitating, we should respond with our full arsenal: herbal remedies like valerian root, cognitive-behavioral interventions with fancy names like “progressive relaxation training,” and ever-improving medications with better chemistry.

But in all the effort to eliminate fear, I can forget that sometimes fear should not be eliminated—sometimes it should be embraced. Because sometimes fear is what happens when we seize the day.

When Good Things Hurt

My oldest son. A line of buses. Eight hours. Twelve days. No communication.

My oldest son, less than ten years from the womb. I remember that first night—12:04am and he arrived all pink and screaming and the doctor handed me the scissors with the rounded tips and the cutting was tough.

But nothing like this.

Nothing like this severing, this sending.

Standing in front of the buses, my oldest son sees some friends and his butterflies appear to flutter away. A quick kiss and a hug and he disappears into one of the buses.

I’m left alone, with my butterflies.

At first, I try to gratitude away the anxiety and the itching around my eyes—I wonder at the beauty of a kid comfortable enough to leave, and I feel thankful for the resources to send him to camp. But the warm and fuzzy feeling won’t come, because the reality is he’s off to camp and it is a good thing but it also hurts.

Because leaping into good things almost always feels like a free fall.

And maybe this is what happens when we seize the day and step bravely into life: we have reason for gratitude and reason for fear, all at the same time.

Seizing the Day

Sometimes, feeling afraid causes us to stop living. But the opposite is equally true: fully living causes us to feel afraid. It takes us into new territory. It pushes us to our limits. It causes us to grow and to change and to leave old, beloved things behind. We end up in the middle of the best things in life, with butterflies and tears.

In recent years, psychology has embraced mindfulness interventions and their underlying assumption: fear and sadness are normal parts of the human experience. By trying to eliminate them altogether, we eliminate an important part of our humanity.

We must stop trying to eliminate our fragile humanity, and we must make it our companion.

We must sit in the car while our son sits on the bus and when all the sadness and fear hit us like a wave, we must stop fighting against the wave and we must learn to ride the wave. We must quit trying to progressively relax, and begin to progressively feel. We must welcome the sadness and the fear with open arms.

If we can learn to do so, we might just discover something surprising at the bottom of our fear and our sadness. We might discover life and love don’t always feel warm and fuzzy, even if we’re living it bravely. Especially if we’re living it bravely.

We might discover life and love are about holding without clutching, cherishing while releasing, feeling the joy in the midst of the sorrow. If we can stand in the middle of our butterflies and tears, we might be able to seize the day—and the people we love—while letting them go, all at the same time.

So, as I watch the bus pull out of the parking lot, I quit trying to fight the fear and the sadness, and I let them in. Because, in the end, there is simply no way to fully live and to daringly love without them.


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Disclaimer: This post is not professional advice. It should be read as you would read a “self-help” book. For professional and customized advice, you should seek the services of a counselor, who can become more intimately familiar with your specific situation. Counselors can be located through your insurance network or through your state psychological association.

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

20 thoughts on “When Carpe Diem Feels Like Crappy Diem

  1. One of the most life changing things I ever did was bungee jump (followed by skydiving). I will never forget that river like a thin silver thread 650 ft below me as I leapt off the bridge. I learned so much about fear, on the way down. I learned that it can be faced, and beaten. Overcome by adrenalin. Survived. And life has never been the same since! I learned to trust the training, trust the equipment, and just go for it! Thanks for the precious reminder of that jump!

    Great post, as always.

    • Thank you, Vaughan. I admire your courage! I love the image of faith/trust here. It’s trusting the training and discovering the training was a good guide. Great reflection, as always. : )

  2. Our sons are a few years away from this kind of thing, but I already have butterflies. Well written post, Dr. Flanagan. Thank you for sharing this.

    • Carter, a couple of people reminded me today that once the sending begins it never ends! I hope you can enjoy the next few years and then embrace the years that follow.

  3. I lost a dear uncle to cancer this past Monday evening. The hurt is terrible, sometimes overwhelming at times, but amidst that there is also the joy that he outlived the doctor’s original lifespan prognosis by THREE YEARS, the memories of his laugh and unconditional love, the words of wisdom he imparted during the years of his life here. The pain of his loss is tremendous, but that doesn’t negate the joy of having known and loved him. Likewise, remembering the joy doesn’t mean I’m not recognizing the pain. It takes both to be alive, to be human, and this post was a perfect reminder of that fact. Thank you.

    • Tracy, I’m sorry for your loss, and I’m glad this post came when it did. Your uncle sounds like an amazing man. The lovely ones intensify both our pain and our joy in their passing. The grief can be so intense. I admire you for honoring the entire experience of it.

    • Thank you! I’m glad you found me here, too, and now I’m glad to have found your work. I’m looking forward to diving in. “The Gift of Being Yourself” is going on my stack!

  4. I am glad I had experiences which makes it easier to understand what you are saying. And that all this comes like a confirmation. I really enjoy your work!!

    • Thanks, Diana. Hope to see you tomorrow in the Hangout! But if not, I’ll keep you posted about future Hangouts.

  5. Thanks for this thoughtful post, Kelly! I felt a sloppy mess for you while I was reading it : ) My daughter is three, and I can’t imagine how I will feel the first day she leaves for camp! I pray I will be strong enough to let her do it, because you are right–real love is cherishing while releasing. And I firmly believe that parenting is about raising our kids to be their best independent, happy, and confident selves–no matter how much fear we experience in the process of doing it.

    • Absolutely, Stacie. Parenting is incredibly sacrificial in that way–a job well done results in one of our greatest gifts ultimately leaving us! When the time comes for you, I hope you will know it’s okay to experience the full range of emotions. 🙂

  6. A few weeks ago I read somewhere that fear is the same emotion as excitement (that if we would really stop and think about it, we would discover that they feel the same to us…i.e. butterflies in the stomach). It was an interesting idea. I had somewhere I had to go and a new person I had to meet and I was terrified! On my way there I thought “no…wait a minute…I’m not scared, I am just EXCITED!!!…I am so excited to meet this new person….so excited to visit this new place!” It was weird…but it made me feel a lot better. Made me wonder if they maybe really are the same?

    • Anne, that’s a great point. Several classic experiments focused on this idea, resulting in the “two factor theory of emotion” and the “misattribution of arousal theory.” Essentially, they posit that fear is made up of our arousal and then our attribution about the cause of the arousal. Just as you did, if you attribute the arousal to excitement, it can become pleasurable instead of fearful. Thanks for pointing this out, Anne! Here’s a link to more details. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Two-factor_theory_of_emotion

  7. My son starts school this term, and I am petrified! I wonder if he’ll make it without me – deep down I know he will, but something in me wants him not to? Letting go is hard! I will try embrace the fear, and joy as well, in letting Carpe Diem not be so crappy diem… Thank you!

    • You’re welcome, Wangari. Letting go of the kids brings such a mix of emotions, doesn’t it! I hope you find a way to embrace the whole messy mix. : )

  8. I am a new subscriber and finding this blog came at the perfect time. I had one bad relationship and a bad marriage. As a result I spent the last 18 years single (by choice) living in fear of making the same mistakes, afraid of choosing the wrong partner again, in fear of putting my heart on the line. I recently met a wonderful man who is helping me to push past the fear and create the wonderful loving relationship that we both deserve. It isn’t easy, but I have decided to feel the fear and do it anyway. I believe that each day is a gift and I will ride the waves of emotion (good and bad) and put myself out there, Carpe Diem. Thank you for this post Kelly, it really struck a chord with me.

    • Elizabeth, I’m so glad you found us, and thanks for jumping right in with an introduction! “Feel the fear and do it anyway.” It’s the only way for our lives to expand, rather than shrink. It’s wonderful to hear your life is expanding with a great guy!

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