It was the best vacation I’d ever experienced, but I couldn’t figure out why until I looked down at my feet.
For the twentieth summer in a row, I vacated to Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. Twenty years ago, it was just my future wife and I, enjoying the beach town in which her family has had a homestead for generations. In the years since then, we got married, had kids, and a new generation of family has fallen in love with the place. It’s always one of my favorite weeks of the year. But this year was my favorite favorite week.
And it made no sense.
Because, for the first time in half a decade, our good friends had been unable to go with us. When I woke the kids up early to watch the sun rise on the first day of summer, and we stood at the edge of our country and waited for it to appear, something felt missing. It was them.
Also, I would be returning from vacation to two busy days in my office and five days of travel for speaking and, usually, when I’m returning from vacation to lots of work, what is ahead taints what is right now. The anticipation should have killed some of the beach bliss, but it didn’t, and I couldn’t understand why. Then, one afternoon, while walking along the boardwalk, I took my eyes off the ocean and looked down at the boards.
They were different colors.
Some of the boards had the dull, gray look of aged and weathered wood, while every once in a while a board had the bright, yellowish gleam of new lumber. When a board gets rotted or warped or damaged, it is replaced with a new board. It struck me: this boardwalk, which looks so timeless and unchanging, is constantly in the process of falling apart and being put back together again. It is never finished. It never reaches its conclusion. It never “arrives.” And that’s why I was enjoying my vacation so much.
For the first time ever, I hadn’t treated it as an arrival.
In the past, I’ve circled our vacation on the calendar, as if my hard work all spring was going to conclude with my feet in the sand. I’ve had the tendency to put too much pressure on that week of vacation, as if it could deliver me into a final state of happiness or satisfaction. Usually, it has made me joyful, though not for good, merely for a moment. And I’ve ruined the final day of the vacation more years than I’d like to admit by dreading the ending. It was my destination, and I didn’t want a new destination. This year, in contrast, I went into our vacation with no expectations for deliverance. Vacation wasn’t my destination.
It was one stop along the way.
I think we’re all hoping to arrive at something, and most of us spend our lives working for that thing or waiting on that thing. In doing so, we run the risk of missing the life that is always happening but never arriving. I spend most of my life hoping to arrive at comfort. My wife spends most of her life hoping to arrive at fun.
This is a bit like mixing oil and water and I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it.
Some of us hope to arrive at perfection. Or peace. Or togetherness or enlightenment or security or justice. And some of us simply hope to arrive at…arrival. Any finished state will do. Perhaps that’s why some of us like to think of heaven as a big conclusion in the sky, while others of us prefer to think that death is simply a conclusion in the ground, with nothing happening afterward.
As I looked down at the differently colored boards, I realized I went into vacation not chasing joy or pretending the week would last forever; I went into vacation with the meager goal of paying attention to the ordinary moments that would continuously arrive and depart throughout the week. For instance, the crack in the clouds that allowed us to see the sunrise. My wife lost in a book on a beach blanket. Caitlin squealing with equal parts delight and terror on the free fall ride at the boardwalk carnival. Quinn making four impossible shots in a row to win a basketball at that same carnival. Aidan for the first time driving the family minivan on the last leg of the road trip. His friend in the backseat, terrified.
None of it adding up to happiness—there’s no math for that—but all of it adding up to presence.
As I looked up from the boards and continued walking along them, I was suddenly grateful for a life that has not and will not arrive at any particular destination. I was thankful for being a human being, constantly falling apart and being put back together, always becoming, never arriving. Not so long ago, that thought would have depressed me. Now, it frees me.
In fact, it feels, somehow, heavenly.
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Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.