Two Gifts of the Long Tail and a Question We All Must Answer

“Family will always be there” Grandma said, looking straight at me with the type of convincing conviction that can only be forged from the scalding fires of direct experience. We were onto the the cheese course now and with it, our second glass of cabernet. This was when our nightly dinner conversations sometimes took a fortuitous turn towards deeper subjects.

A wave of sadness rolled through me because I knew I had traveled the 5,000 plus miles to be here with her in Blagdon for the exact opposite reason: family won’t always be there.

Recently I was moved by Tim’s reflection on the the tail end, which had brought him to the following conclusion:

When you look at that reality, you realize that despite not being at the end of your life, you may very well be nearing the end of your time with some of the most important people in your life.

The reality he’s looking at is that we have a limited amount of experiences in our lifetime and for some types of experiences, the majority of them have already passed. There is a finite number of tacos we’ll eat, baseball games we’ll watch and days we’ll spend with family. This seems obvious, but hiding behind it is a truth that can be startlingly counterintuitive.

For example Tim considers his family, which he grew up with but no longer lives with and discovers that at 34, he’s already used up 95% of his time with his parents and 85% of his time with his sisters. He only has 5% and 15% left respectively. He’s in the tail end with some of the people he cares most about.

If things continue as they have I am also in the tail end with some of the people I care most about. I haven’t lived in the same city as my brother or parents for over 10 years. What shocked me about Tim’s conclusion was how much it doesn’t feel that way. Maybe because I’ve spent so much time with them already is what makes it feel like there will be so much more time together to come.

Grandma and I are also in the tail end. Even being optimistic the reality is that the number of days we have left together is very likely to only be a small number of the total days we’ll have spent together during our lifetimes.

This is an uncomfortable truth for me and my knee jerk reaction is to push it away because it makes me sad to think about. But with a closer look I can see it’s really a well-meaning messenger, whose come to pass along an important question:

What is important to you right now?

With Grandma, considering this has brought with it two major gifts.

1) It’s given me more time with Grandma. When I’ve truly heard the question I have no choice but to answer it. Non-action is as loud an answer as action. The result being that spending time with Grandma took priority over other things in my life.

2) It’s increased the quality of the time we share together. Keeping the tail end front of mind has helped me be more present in the moments we have together and see them for what they are: precious and sacred. Not all the time, but more of the time.

I think some of the most painful experiences in life are those where we expect to have more time with someone than we really do. Perhaps because our time is cut unexpectedly short or perhaps because we never noticed the grains of sand slowly trickling from one chamber to the other. Never realizing that the messenger’s question can go ignored but not unanswered.

I don’t think we ever regret spending more time or making more of an effort to be present in the time we have with the people important to us. It’s difficult to do nonetheless. Maybe if we’re able to keep the tail end in mind more often we can spend more of our time in those ways that are most meaningful to us.

Over the five weeks I spent with Grandma one night in particular sticks out in my mind. It was a chilly night in the village and we were walking up the cobbled stone street towards Grandma’s house after a heartwarmingly long dinner with friends. The stars were out. I have a habit of walking in front of people instead of with them and on the way home Grandma called me out on this, scolding me and grabbing my hand. We laughed about it and continued walking the rest of the way home, hand in hand.

I’ll never forget that walk home. She was right. It will always be there.

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Hello. I’m Alasdair.

Hello. I’m Alasdair.

I believe that being aware of who I am and mindful of who I am becoming is the best investment I can make in my life —and that when we focus our efforts within, the rewards naturally flow outward to those we love and through the communities we belong to.