When I was eleven, I came home from what we now call a play date in tears. No one was home except my grandfather. I was crying because another little girl had uttered lethal words in tween girl speak: lessons from my grandfather
“I don’t want to be your friend anymore.”
My grandfather was a gruff, old-school kind of guy who was probably uncomfortable with girl drama, but no one else was home, so he was it. He listened patiently to my tale of playground woe and then asked me this question:
“Is this going to matter in five years?”
That got my attention. In five years, I would have a driver’s license and a real bra as in not a training bra. I would know the answers to All of the Questions, which was my eleven-year-old perception of sixteen. Of course, I’d later realize that sixteen-year-olds didn’t have all the answers, but in that moment, I knew my grandfather was onto something with this five year thing.
After thinking about it, I realized that while her hateful words stung, maybe being dissed by Julie whatsherface down the block wasn’t the most tragic thing ever to happen to me. My grandfather didn’t graduate from high school. He worked as a carney and later as a coal miner, but he was a smart man, and his question “Will that matter in five years?” has stuck with me through my adult life.
The five-year question has been my litmus test every time I start to get my panties in a bunch over life’s little annoyances…
…like the Christmas morning when my kids found permanent markers and decked the halls (literally) along with their bellies;
…like the fight with my husband over who forgot to buy Diet Coke when I was running on little sleep and really, really needed caffeine.
I try to stop and ask myself “Am I even going to care in five years?” before I have a meltdown over something that seems like a major incident, but probably isn’t. Taking a minute to consider long-term impact has helped keep life’s crappy moments in perspective. Asking myself the five-year question doesn’t minimize the “this bites right now” factor when something goes wrong, but it keeps me grounded and gives me some perspective on how long I should stew or wallow.
This works the other way, too. Sometimes the universe throws us life-altering-and-not-in-a-good-way curve balls. “Is this going to matter in five years?” has also been my litmus test when faced with how to handle situations that might have more impact than a few scribbles on the wall…
…like the night I sat alone in my living room trying to make sense of the fact that my husband had just walked out on me after hitting me and telling me I was nothing;
…like realizing I was in a codependent relationship that was dangerous in more ways than the obvious.
The decisions I made in these moments would matter in five years, and I could hear my grandfather’s words in my head as I tried to figure out my life. I thought about negotiating some sort of keep-the-peace-and-patch-it-up fix that would preserve the status quo and not result in lawyers and feelings of failure, but I knew that my decision to stay or go would matter in five years. Other than the obvious impact on my own safety and well-being, I had another person to think about; my daughter was eight, and if I modeled that it was okay for men to hurt women, it would negatively impact the person she would become in five years and beyond.
This way of looking at life doesn’t make problems go away, but it helps ground and guide me, especially in parenting. I think I’m a mostly good mom but some days I’m happy just to hit the mediocre mark. My kids had Diet Coke and scrambled eggs for dinner last week (I had wine). It was late. I’d forgotten to go to the grocery store and honestly, it was one of “those days” where I was winning just by remembering to feed them.
Is that going to matter in five years?
I doubt it. The kids went to bed with full bellies. Plus, I was having a glass of wine and everyone is a little happier when mom is warmed up with just a touch of “grownup juice.”
I felt guilty for screaming at my four-year-old son because he left his Legos on the floor and I stepped on one barefooted (those little mothers are sharp!)
Is that going to matter in five years?
Maybe. While raising yelling at my children might not be the tipping point that lands my kid in therapy, it won’t result in a positive childhood memory, either. He’s old enough to remember me losing my crap over something that really wasn’t a big deal in the big picture. The advice I got when I was 11 is never far from my mind. Sometimes I still suck at life in spite of it, but it’s often my trigger to take a breath and consider the long-term impact of a situation.
And the girl who dissed me in sixth grade? I close my eyes and concentrate, but I can’t remember even her face, let alone why what she thought of me was important. But I remember my grandfather’s face that day quite clearly, and the advice he gave me has been replayed in my mind thousands of times.
So, the next time life throws you something that makes you angry or hurts you, remember my lessons from my grandather and ask yourself this:
“Is it really going to matter in five years?”
The answer might surprise you.