It’s fitting that one of the most important things you can do as a parent would require you to think about a thing that’s very nearly impossible for a parent to even consider. It comes to us from Marcus Aurelius by way of Epictetus:
As you kiss your son good night, says Epictetus, whisper to yourself, “He may be dead in the morning.” Don’t tempt fate, you say. By talking about a natural event? Is fate tempted when we speak of grain being reaped?
Of course, this is not an easy thing to do. It goes against all our impulses. But we must do it. Because life is fleeting and the world is cruel. Marcus lost 5 children. 5! Seneca, we gather, lost one early too. It should never happen, but it does. It heartbreakingly-world-wreckingly-nobody-deserves-it does. And it’s not that we hope that Marcus Aurelius and Seneca’s philosophical training prepared them for the pain of losing a child (nothing can prepare you for that). What we hope is that this exercise meant they didn’t waste a single second of the time they did get with their beautiful children.
A parent who faces the fact that they can lose a child at any moment is a parent who is present. Who loves. Who does not hold onto stupid things or enforce stupid rules. A great dad looks at the cruel world and says, “I know what you can do to my family in the future, but for the moment you’ve spared me. I will not take that for granted.” Anxiety? Keeping up with the Joneses? Caring about getting into that exclusive pre-school or into Harvard? Who cares?
It can all go away in a second. There’s nothing we can do about that. We can, however, drink in the present. We can be what they need right now.