THE DAYS ARE LONG
I have been a clinical psychologist for 46 years. In that time, I have come to appreciate the power of the process called psychotherapy. And as much as I would like to think that my patients benefit from it, I know that I do because I learn so much from them, about life and about myself. A few weeks ago while talking to a longtime patient about the struggles her son and daughter-in-law were having in caring for a preterm infant, she said: “The days are long, but the years are short”. I immediately thought about a copyright but instead asked her if I could steal it to use for the betterment of mankind in one of my blogs. She said yes and here we are. It turns out that the old adage that there is always a first time, but this isn't it, is true as the phrase is well represented on the internet. It was new to me and even if it isn't to you, it's still worth some discussion.
”The days are long, but the years are short”. Nine words that have the insight and wisdom not found in a fifteen week college course or five hundred page scholarly treatise. They capture the essence of life experience in virtually any area. I often say that frustration tolerance separates the winners and losers in life. Malcolm Gladwell, in one of his powerful and insightful books, states to really master something— hitting a golf ball, writing a symphony, playing the violin— you have to practice it for 10,000 hours. Even “naturals” like Tiger Woods or Wolfgang Mozart or Thomas Edison had to endure the frustration of those 10,000 hours in order to master their craft. We usually only see the successful end product, not the endless days, weeks and years of failure.
But dealing with frustration is only one aspect of this gem. Another is how we evaluate our experience while we are living it. Most often, we can only see the worth of something as it is happening as we cannot view it in the context of our entire lives. So something that at the time seems like the worst or best thing that as ever happened to us turns out in later years to be the opposite. Stories of lottery winners or pro athletes whose lives were ruined by too much money too fast are not uncommon. As a fledgling clinician in graduate school, I once saw a young woman who was essentially quite happy with herself and her life in the present but who had spent about ten years in a convent before assuming a new direction in her life. She lamented about wasting those years. My response was that we can never know the path that we need to take in order to get where we want to go, only the one we took. We can regret that it was painful or took so long but we can never say that there was a better way. I’m sure you know people who have suffered losses—jobs, marriages— and who thought correctly that it was the low point of their lives, only to find much greater happiness and success in the future. Would that happiness or success have happened without the loss? Probably not. So was the loss the worst thing that ever happened or was it the best.
The context for my patient's statement was a Harry Chapin-like moment in her son's life. As parents, it is easy to relate. The middle of the night nightmares, the interminable hours of watching youth soccer or my favorite, gymnastics, certainly did make the days seem long. But looking back at them from the vantage point of a seventy-five year old, they are the cherished memories that made all those years worth living. Yes, the days are long but, the years, the years are really short.