Every year, I am fortunate enough to go on a family vacation with my wife’s family, including parents, cousins, aunts and uncles, “uncles” and “aunts” and more “cousins” - depending on the year. We could have 25 or we could have 45 family members of all ages.
Every year, for the last 17 years this has happened. And, every year, it’s had a bit of a different meaning and purpose for me. The first time I joined, my wife and I were just dating. Five years later, married, I went just a few months after my Dad’s suicide. I went days before starting business school - my accounting primer workbook in hand. I went weeks after a big deal had fallen through and I wasn’t sure how my first startup was ever going to survive. It’s where my wife and I told the family we were pregnant with our first child. I went with one baby and then with two.
As part of it, I typically also vacation from the news, and now that social media exists, I also go to vacation from that.
This year, I was just two weeks into joining a new startup and certain I couldn’t tolerate another minute of news or politics. The former has had me on a hope high and full of energy and the latter damn-near hopeless.
I needed some clarity to engage and focus on the new startup opportunity with full energy, new hope, new possibility, curiosity, hustle. I needed not just to get away for a week from the news and my perspective on the state of the world, but a reframing. Somehow, I needed to find that on the beach - but where? In a book? In a conversation? Somewhere in my head?
On the first day at the beach, really in the first few minutes, I was watching two twin cousins whom I had just met for the first time. They are toddlers, and seemed already comfortable with the beach and the 20+ new family members who were simultaneously gazing, loving, and vying for their attention. My mind inevitably wandered off and started reflecting on how this was my two girls just a couple of years back (and how glad I was that they were older now because otherwise I wouldn’t be doing this reflection, much less have been sitting, or watching anything other than them. I would have been scrambling to keep them from eating a shell, from wandering into the ocean, feeding them a hot, sandy box of raisins, a cheese stick that mysteriously hadn’t melted, or re-coating their sunscreen because it had been 10 minutes and it could have worn off by now).
Anyway, one of the toddler twins was at the water’s edge staring at and testing the feel and look of the waves as they came crashing in. I find the ocean intimidating in its mere scale and the vastness of its unknown. Somehow seeing a toddler gazing into it made the ocean smaller and the toddler more expansive. Sweet. Hopeful. Promising. Absorbing it all with a life of growth and possibility ahead. More vast than an ocean.
Wondering about her sister, I scanned the shoreline and quickly found her. She, less interested in the ocean at the moment, had found a seagull. She was chasing it. I laughed to myself because that’s what toddlers do at the beach - they chase seagulls. Her curiosity had taken her down the beach, never getting any nearer to the relatively patient seagull who had yet to fly off - despite a chase of a good fifty yards. It stayed at an intuitive 12-15 feet away from its persistent chaser and potential assailant.
I suspect no toddler has successfully caught a seagull. Ever. It’s hopeless. (I have no data to back this up.) And yet, in addition to the sheer joy of watching the eternal cuteness, I found in that fruitless chase a profound sense of hope. The eternal curiosity. The persistence. The exuberance. The chase in and of itself. The fact that it seems to happen on every beach, everywhere, with seemingly every able toddler. There is something transcendent in chasing but never catching that bird.
I’ve just finished a book on Buddhism and am now reading a book on theories of happiness from cultures and places across millennia. They can’t teach me any more than that toddler chasing that seagull:
We must remain curious. Questioning that bird, what it is, what it might feel like, how it will respond as we approach. How fast is it? What’s it look like when it takes to flight?
We must focus on the process. The chase as valuable in itself. The exploration. The freedom to run and feel wind in our hair and sand in our feet - whatever that wind and sand might actually be for each of us wherever we are and at any given time. We must engage it. Presence.
We must be persistent and resilient (and count our blessings). God forbid any toddler ever catch a seagull. It could be tragic. There’s a reason the seagull always gets away and a reason toddlers continue to chase them. We should always seek the reason, not the bird.
And, now I am back home, a long way from the ocean, already a long way from vacation.
Tomorrow, I will go back to work.
Tomorrow, I will probably turn the news back on.
Tomorrow, I will return to a sense of possibility in my personal and professional life that grates against the hopelessness I feel in the broader world around me.
And, tomorrow the waves will still be crashing into that beach far away.
And, tomorrow, a toddler will still be chasing a seagull.