Side Note: This is a new story inspired by questions I’ve faced over the years as a therapist and a Disney LEGO castle I was given this year as a belated 40th birthday gift (building a LEGO set was surprisingly de-stressing).
LEGO my Christmas
Grandpa Steve sauntered into the family room the way only a grandpa can. It was that carefree, “I’m not in a rush” attitude that makes old men the worst to be stuck behind when you’re driving, but endearing in person. The only one in the family room was his grandson, Paul, who was sitting on the floor working on a LEGO set he had on the coffee table that he’d been given that Christmas morning. Paul may have been almost 20, but he still enjoyed the stress reducing task of putting together a LEGO set. Normally at this time on Christmas day he would be out playing with his brother and cousins while his dad barbequed the turkey burgers with his uncles – Paul’s family had learned the benefits of making life simpler at Christmas. Meanwhile, his mom would be making salads and chatting with the other ladies in the kitchen – all the men avoided that area; the cackling and laugh-snorts were pretty intimidating. This year, however, Paul chose to be alone. He had been trying to be by himself all day and was doing quite well at it. He loved his family, but he didn’t want to have to pretend he was fine or to have to deal with people asking him what was wrong – he hated that kind of attention. Instead of being social, he used the excuse of working on his gift to avoid the typical festivities. His grandpa, however, wasn’t going to let him off that easy… especially because he wanted to avoid the craziness as well.
Grunting and groaning, Grandpa Steve got down on the ground to sit a few feet from Paul. When he was done making semi-exaggerated pain noises, he greeted his grandson, “Besides sitting on the floor, I think you’re the one sensible person in this crazy house. Sitting quietly in a room away from everyone sounds like a good idea to me.” Paul looked at his grandpa and made a half-hearted smile to acknowledge him. His grandpa continued, “So this is a modern LEGO set, eh? I remember as a kid when LEGO first started to gain interest in the ‘60s. They were just bricks.” Grandpa Steve started reading the box, “The Disney castle, 4080 pieces, ages 16 plus. Huhn, LEGO used to be for little kids, but this is a pretty grownup set. It even has stickers. It’s very grownup,” he joked.
“Yeah, it’s pretty cool,” Paul replied very half-heartedly and as if not really listening.
“Things certainly do change. Speaking of which,” Grandpa Steve began, “how was your first semester of university?”
“It was okay,” Paul muttered like someone who was struggling with something.
“How were finals? Exams were always stressful for your dad,” noted Grandpa Steve.
“I did fine,” Paul replied while looking at the instruction manual for the castle.
“And did you survive the first semester breakup season?” Grandpa Steve enquired.
“Yeah,” smirked Paul as he tried to find some pieces to go on the castle. “Katie will be over for dessert.”
“Good for you. You survived the ol’turkey dump season. That’s a good sign,” smiled his grandpa.
“Yeah.” Paul half-smiled as he put a few pieces together.
After a short pause to look at Paul inquisitively, Grandpa Steve commented, “Wow, I am not good at this guessing game with you. Your dad was a lot easier to figure out. He was either stressed about school or upset that he was single and couldn’t get a girl.”
Paul, a little more intrigued by his grandpa, looked at him and asked, “What do you mean?”
“Well, I’ve noticed the last month or so coming by the house that you’re not quite yourself,” Grandpa Steve pointed out.
Suddenly, getting defensive like this wasn’t the first time someone had pointed this out, Paul instinctively snapped, “What, are you going to fix me?”
Grandpa Steve started to laugh in that carefree grandpa way, “No, I don’t try to fix people. Your grandma taught me decades ago how futile that was… and painful. Your life is your life and your responsibility.” Paul’s shoulders started to relax again. “That being said, I have also learned that sometimes people need to know I care about them enough to ask about it. Sometimes talking about it can clear your head, and who knows, maybe it’ll be something I’ve encountered in one of my many years kicking around.”
Paul started putting pieces together for his castle again. The two of them sat in silence for a couple minutes when Paul started, “My girlfriend and I read this book called, 52 Lessons for a Better Relationship.”
“Ew… relationship books… I mean, good for you,” joked his grandpa.
“It was a really good book. The author is a genius. (Yes, that’s a shameless plug for my new book that will be out for January.) It gave us a lot of great tools that helped us get through this first semester, but the last lesson…” Paul took a moment to pick the right words. “It kind of threw me, and it’s been stuck in my brain the last few months. It scared me in a big picture kind of way.”
“That must have been quite the lesson,” Grandpa Steve remarked with a strong interest to hear more.
Paul hesitated like he wasn’t sure if he should continue. Because his grandpa remained silent ready to listen, however, he soon continued, “The author said that early life is like climbing an escarpment; everyone has a different journey up to the top. Some paths are easier than others and we have some choice, but in many ways our paths are set for us because we can’t control who are family is, where we live, or who’s in our classes at school. How long it takes to climb up the escarpment varies and a few even give up pushing forward and never get to the top, which means they never really grow up and take on real responsibility. Getting to the top of the escarpment is when your life is generally in order. For many people this means wife, kids, career, and home. Whatever being at the top of the escarpment means to someone, when you’re there, you can look back at your journey and enjoy the view, which is nice, but when you turn around and look forward, it’s just a flat land of boring because all of the major hurdles are done and you’re living a simple life now. Is that true?” Paul asked with a tone that suggested he hoped the author was just being cynical.
Grandpa Steve paused as he took in what his grandson just said. “Well, I’m guessing that you’d like me I’ll tell you that the author’s wrong.” Paul looked at his grandpa with fading hope in his eyes. His grandpa paused again. “From my experience, however, that’s a pretty good way to describe the life journey.”
Paul’s face sunk, “Oh…”
“The good news,” Grandpa Steve continued, “is I love being at the top of the escarpment in all its flatness.”
Paul looked at him confused. “But it sounds so boring. Here I am killing myself at school, and for what? To get to the top of the escarpment and realize it was all pointless because now life sucks?”
Grandpa Steve remained unfettered. “I remember when it first hit me that all the major hurdles of my life were over. Your grandma and I were married and settled in our house, we were done having children and they were out of diapers, and my career path was pretty much set and I was really efficient at my job. There weren’t any real challenges left. That’s when I started questioning, ‘Is that it?’ When you hit this point, some so-called grownups get scared and do something stupid. They might have a midlife crisis or have an affair, but one night, after months of struggling with this thought of ‘is that it?’ I suddenly stopped questioning everything. Instead, I…” Grandpa Steve paused again, “I enjoyed it. It can sound strange, but I somehow realized I was free from all the stress I once had trying to get everything set up. It was exciting back when I was single and going to school. I was dating different girls and there were some fantastic times with my friends. It was a whirlwind of excitement… and stress. I remember nights struggling to sleep because I was so scared of what would happen or feeling guilty for something stupid I did. It was awful. I may have had excitement, but you can’t have excitement without fear. For every up, there is a down. At one point, I realized part of me missed the ups I once had when I was younger because they were so high, but to have those kinds of highs, you also have the subsequent lows. I hated those lows, and not having those lows helped me be okay not having the highs like I used to; they’re wonderful memories, but no part of me wants to relive my youth.” Grandpa Steve took a moment to gather his thoughts. “At that time, my question changed. With everything in place and moving along pretty well, I asked, ‘Now what?’” Grandpa Steve looked at Paul. “You know what the ‘now what?’ answer was?” Paul just stared, “Being content. That was it, and it was wonderful. After I accepted that the biggest challenges in my life were done, barring any tragedy, I was set, and it was wonderful. I found a level of peace and happiness that I couldn’t have known when I was younger trying to set up my life.”
Paul was a little put off like his grandpa was telling him that he was too young to understand, “What do you mean you couldn’t have known it when you were younger?”
“At your age,” Grandpa Steve casually replied, “You need to have drive. You need passion and a desire to prove yourself because… you do. I’m old and done proving anything – I have a pension. For you, it’s different. You need that passion to help you set up your life. I love being on top of the escarpment, but you have to get there first.”
“Yeah, I guess that makes sense,” Paul reluctantly admitted.
“Young people who find what I call ‘old people contentment’ too young, end up not pushing themselves hard enough. They end up settling for less than they should and life isn’t as good as it could’ve been if they had of had more passion and pushed themselves harder. It’s amazing how you can sometimes make up for a lack of experience with enthusiasm – being young has its benefits. At the same time, I’ve met guys who never find this contentment being at the top of the escarpment and they miss being with their family because of chasing some dream. Even worse, there are the guys who, instead of finding contentment, turn to drinking to fill the lack of excitement in their lives.” Paul looked as confused as he did at the beginning of the conversation. Grandpa Steve tried again, “Here’s the important thing to take away: When you’re young, work hard, make good choices, get your life in order, and then ride that contentment wave for the rest of your life. If you change up that order, you end up making life a lot more complicated than it needs to be. If you never let yourself find contentment in your lot in life, you also won’t enjoy it very much.”
“I guess so,” Paul shared defeated.
“Let me give you a different analogy to consider. Life is like building this LEGO set. You asked for it, and now you’re putting it together. Is it fun?” asked Grandpa Steve.
“Yeah,” replied Paul hesitantly.
“When you work on it, it gives you a sense of purpose even though it’s just temporary. It feels good, but soon it’ll be done. You’re not likely going to play with it because you’re not a five-year-old girl, so it’ll sit on a shelf, but it’ll still give you a sense of accomplishment for awhile – accomplishments are very helpful for enjoying life. When you’re done the castle, will you move to another project or will you do nothing?” enquired Grandpa Steve
“I’ll find another project,” affirmed Paul.
“Exactly, and that’s what life is about,” Grandpa Steve cheerfully announced. “We do something that gives us a sense of purpose for awhile and then we move onto something else collecting these wonderful experiences along the way. The hope is we can still find projects that give us purpose until we die because otherwise, we end up a shell of a person staring at a screen in a nursing home hoping we don’t wake up the next morning.”
Paul started to smile, “Yeah, I definitely don’t want that last part.”
His grandpa continued, “The projects of making a family, a home, and career are the biggest projects you’ll have in your life, so once you have them, yeah, there’s not the same hope and excitement about what the future holds. Fortunately, those three projects are never fully done and you get to help your kids work on their own projects while having time to work on smaller projects of your own that you want to do like a LEGO set. There’s a time when you have little kids that those projects disappear because you’re too busy, but that’s just a season.”
“So, I guess I’m in a particularly wild and crazy time in my life and I need to enjoy it because it won’t last for long… hopefully, or I’ll be living here until I’m shoved into a nursing home,” half joked Paul.
“You got it,” smiled his grandpa. “You’re in this wild and fun season that you need to enjoy for all its worth because one day you’ll be in the boring phase where you’ll be able to find a sense of peace of and contentment.”
Paul nodded with his first genuine smile that quickly faded again as he paused. “I guess that leads to another problem I’ve had.” Gathering his thoughts, Paul continued, “It often feels like no one understands me.”
“I’ve been there,” Grandpa Steve said with a laugh.
“You have?” Paul asked confused.
“When you’re old like me, there’s a good chance I’ve experienced it,” His grandpa smiled. “When I was your age, back when we listened to the radio and bought albums – you know, the Stone Age – I remember there was this one band I loved because of their one song. I listened to it over and over. It really spoke to me because it was that theme of ‘nobody understands me.’ I eventually saw the band in concert and when they sang that song, there were a couple thousand young people all screaming along, ‘No one understands me!’ That’s when I realized… that was clearly not true. If these thousands of people all loved that song because they didn’t feel understood, didn’t we all on some level understand each other?”
“I never thought about it that way before,” admitted Paul.
“We often try to make life more complicated than it is, but it’s pretty simple. There are three primary colours, five basic emotions, seven basic facial expressions, seven basic notes in music.”
“But music notes have sharps and flats and different spots on the scale,” pointed out Paul.
“Yes,” agreed his grandpa, “which makes music more interesting, but all the music in the world can be reduced to seven basic notes. Underneath it all, it’s very simple. Isn’t that incredible?”
“Yeah, I guess so,” Paul hesitantly affirmed.
“That means for your life, you may think other people don’t understand you, but pretty much everyone can on some level because we’ve all felt the basic emotions of anger, sadness, fear, disgust and happiness like in that Disney movie you like.”
“Inside Out,” interjected Paul who knew his Disney movies – hence, the LEGO Disney castle. “But that leads to another problem I’ve been struggling with,” Paul admitted. “I once heard, ‘There’s nothing new under the sun,’ so doesn’t that mean my life doesn’t matter?” Paul looked directly at his grandpa. “Is my life a waste?”
“Isn’t that a humdinger of a question,” his grandpa replied.
“Aren’t you supposed to tell me it’s not?” asked Paul confused.
“That’s not for me to decide,” corrected his grandpa. Paul looked a little hurt, but his grandpa continued, “From my experience, we need to listen to what our body and brain tells us. Sometimes our feelings can be liars and they make us feel things we shouldn’t like unnecessary guilt or anger, but other times they are wonderful guides. In a situation like this where your feelings are telling you something, it doesn’t matter what I think or anybody else. What you need to be asking yourself is one simple question.” Grandpa Steve paused for effect. “Is this feeling a lie or is it true and your brain is telling you there’s something that needs to be changed?” Paul was surprised at this. “That’s a humdinger of a humdinger of question, isn’t it?” smiled his grandpa.
“Yeah… I never thought of it that way. So I guess if my feelings are telling me that my life is a waste and it’s true, I can either wallow in self pity or I can try to do something to make my life not be such a waste.”
“Now you’re getting it. It’s not that complicated is it? If the feeling is true, do something about it. If it’s not, tell your brain to shut up and move on,” Grandpa Steve bluntly added.
“That makes a lot of sense,” admitted Paul who now appeared lighter.
“On another level, however,” Grandpa Steve added, “I’ve had my share of Christmases, but I can’t remember the last time I’ve enjoyed such a great conversation on Christmas day. You made me feel important.”
“I did?” asked Paul.
“You opened up your heart to me. It’s wonderful to be able to feel so trusted,” pointed out his grandpa.
“I thought I was being a downer,” confessed Paul.
“I didn’t say you weren’t,” laughed his grandpa. “But sharing your heart with me was a wonderful gift, and the fact that you listened to my ramblings was the best gift I could’ve asked for this year. When you get to my age, not a lot of people seem to care about the wisdom I’ve gathered.”
“Yeah, young people don’t look to our elders for guidance, but that’s because we know it all,” Paul joked.
“And this conversation proves that neither of our lives is a waste because we just made each other feel better.”
“How’d you get so smart, Grandpa?” asked Paul half jokingly.
Grandpa Steve paused to enjoy the subtle compliment. “Like you, I asked some good questions; I listened to what people had to say; and then I figured out what I believed from there.” Paul smiled back and at return compliment. “You know what I think?” Grandpa Steve shifted like he was uncomfortable from sitting on the floor. “I think a lot of what’s been swirling in your mind is less about your actual feelings and more about the fact that you’re tired. We can think some crazy things when we’re worn out and then those thoughts keep us up at night, which makes us even more tired. I’m thinking this Christmas holidays you need to get some rest, and you’ll naturally feel better. You’ll also want to avoid being bored because that can lead to crazy thinking as well. We want to find that sweet spot in the middle where we’re doing a project like your castle here to stimulate our brains enough, but not stimulating it so much it hurts our brain like final assignments and exams tend to do.”
From the kitchen, Paul’s mom was chanting, “Christmas dinner time!”
And his brother added in the fake voice of a turkey, “Turk…turk… turk… turkeeeyyyyyy!”
“What were the odds of that timing being so perfect? It’s like it was written.” laughed Grandpa Steve. “Now what do you say we go stuff our faces, so your mom and dad don’t feel like all their hard work was a waste?”
“Sounds like a plan.” As Paul jumped up to go to the kitchen. Just as he was about to walk away, he stopped like he suddenly remembered his grandpa and helped him up. “I guess my life can’t be a waste if you need me to get your old bones up off the floor.”
“These aren’t ‘old bones,’ they’re experienced and wise bones,” grunted his grandpa getting up. Giving Paul a light push, he cheered, “Race you to the kitchen!”