Editor’s note: Below is an article I wrote in 2011. I’m rerunning it because a) I didn’t have time to write a new article this week, and b) the reason I didn’t have time to write is that our family has been in crisis mode of late. After losing my father-in-law in April of this year, my mother-in-law is suddenly very ill. As many of you can relate all too well, it’s been a time of stress and sorrow, exhaustion and holding each day’s plans with open hands. But it’s also been a time of reflection and gratitude, which is what prompted me to remember this article. It seems somehow fitting to rerun it now. I hope you don’t mind.
I took one of our kids’ toy fire trucks to the curb the other day to be hauled away with the trash. And it made me cry.
It was a pathetic, beaten up old thing. The steering wheel was broken. I mean, a piece of it was missing. And none of the battery-operated features – the lights, the siren – ever worked. Not since we bought it.
But that old truck meant something to me.
I still remember the garage sale where we bought the truck for one dollar. We were on our way to my parents’ house, about an hour and a half west of Chicago, where we lived at the time.
It was a season of extreme emotional peaks and valleys. Our first child had just been born. My mom then passed away 30 days later. My dad would soon follow.
That truck strongly reminded me of that season. As challenging as that time was, it was filled with rich moments – such as giving my parents the gift of the only grandchild they would ever meet, visiting my dad as often as we could and hearing him say every time he saw his grandson, “He’s terrific.” I know he would have thought the same of his other two grandkids.
Our first little guy learned to walk pushing that truck. Our second child pushed it around as he was learning to walk as well. And even our third child got a little walking practice courtesy of that scuffed up old truck.
It doesn’t have to be perfect
I’ll never forget going to a birthday party when we just had two kids and the birthday boy had the exact same fire truck, with one exception: everything on his truck worked.
Watching our kids play with that truck, making the lights flash and the siren scream, I remember thinking to myself, “Oh no, we’re busted. Now our kids know what their truck is supposed to be capable of. They’ll never like their truck again. They’ll start asking for one that works.”
The funny thing is, they never said a word. They went back to playing with their old fire truck like it was a great toy.
To this day, they’re delighted when they get to pick out a “new” toy at a garage sale. Sure, they love it whenever they get a perfect brand new toy, but they’re happy with toys that are less than perfect as well. I think that’s a great trait in a kid.
What really makes you happy?
Researchers who study happiness say people who value experiences tend to be happier than those who value things. But I don’t think that’s a lesson you can just slap on like cologne. You have to do some experimenting. You have to live a little life and find out on your own.
I used to be a stuff person. Big time. My identity was tightly wound up in what I owned. The financial crash and burn I went through in my 20s helped reorder my priorities, but it’s been a journey, and it continues to be.
The thing is, it’s easy to miss the changes that take place in our lives, the lessons we’ve learned, the ways we’ve grown. It all usually happens in such small steps over a long period of time.
Getting rid of that old truck made me stop and remember. Special moments with my parents. Our kids’ first steps.
And it helped me notice the distance I’ve traveled in the journey so far.
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