My grandfather was a man who lived a rich life. A shipbuilder by trade, he was one of 11 children born in rural Nova Scotia.

Grandfather was a quiet man, a deeply religious man and, perhaps most of all, a person of significant character. Once when I was in high school, my grandfather invited me to go on a rowing trip with him. He loved the sea and told me that this particular evening promised a glorious sunset. “Would you be interested in going on a rowing trip with me to visit a tiny cove I’m sure you’ve not seen?” he inquired. Looking outside, wiping the sweat from my teenaged forehead, I suggested that 95 degrees was not the perfect time for a long rowing trip and said another time would be better. “Ah,” he said, “another time is for young men. Let’s do it now.”

With that clarity of perspective, off we went on what would turn out to be a nonstop row of more than an hour. Given that he was in his seventies and I a mere fifteen, the rowing naturally fell on my shoulders. All during our trip to that cove, he was chiding me to go faster else we miss the promised sunset. “Chop, chop,” he piped up. Sweating profusely, I diligently rowed until more than an hour had passed and we turned a corner beyond a tiny point of land and into the promised cove. Moments later, the sky burst into an orange-purple blaze. My grandfather was right, the cove and the sunset were both breathtaking. The scene is one I will never forget.

We were there, however, for no more than a couple of minutes when my grandfather said, “Well, let’s head back now.”

Incredulous, I protested. “Granddad, you were right, it is beautiful here. But look at me, I’m dying — let’s stay for a while.”

“No,” he said, “they’ll have made dinner for us and we’re already late. We ought to think of others, not just ourselves. Besides, we’ve seen it and this beautiful sunset will follow us home.”

Hands on the oars, I began the journey back. With each pull I renewed my complaining: “It was nice, but not worth all that rowing… This boat is too old and needs new oars… The current’s too strong today… You’re the big shipbuilder — why don’t you take a turn rowing?” On and on I went. My grandfather merely sat quietly, enjoying the sunset.

Finally, after about thirty minutes he gazed at me and quietly said, “John, put the oars down, would you?”

With the oars in the boat he stared me in the face: “I want to tell you something today, something I very much hope you will remember. John, most of life is rowing and if you don’t learn to be good at — and enjoy — the rowing, you will grow up to be a very unhappy man. Now put your hands on the wood and take me home.”

I would love to tell you that the scales fell from my eyes in that moment and my life was lived differently from then until now. But that would not be true. At the time, those words seemed like the babblings of an old shipbuilder about to make his last sail. But thirty years have passed and I know now what he meant.

Life is mostly rowing. There are, of course, moments of ecstasy, but most of life is made up of simpler moments. A walk on the beach, a glancing view of a beautiful cornfield out an airplane window, the first time you see your child steal a base, a conversation where you know your words helped a friend, lying in a tent by a river with the few people you love most, the good feeling at the end of a hard day at work when you know your efforts were not in vain. It is precisely our ability to be present and enjoy those moments that makes life worth living. We can spend our entire lives trying to get from one big sunset to the next and miss a whole lot of great living in between. Sure those great sunsets are wonderful, but they are the icing, not the cake.

And it is not the big things that determine our success in the many realms of our life. Marriages are not built on the big anniversary trip to Hawaii or the special gift that marks a date. It is in the rowing that marriages are made and broken, in the daily honoring of life together. Parents do not raise children well because of the camping trip taken once each year to provide “quality time.” Rather it is in the rowing moments, simple exchanges that occur thousands of times over the years that our children learn the lessons they will need to live a life uncommon. Leaders do not earn their stripes at the annual meeting when they give a rousing speech that inspires the masses, but in the daily way their rowing inspires a sense of pride and respect among those whom they lead.

But how do we begin to get better at the rowing and to appreciate the simpler pleasures it has to offer? How do we reclaim the innocence, faith and wonder with which we were graced when we came into the world?

It seems to me that it begins with realizing that life is not about where we are going as much as it is about being where we are. How much of our lives are lived with the future as our focus — saving for retirement, waiting for the weekend, counting the days until vacation, looking forward to graduation, the next promotion. We seem destined to believe life will be better when we finally get there.

When we choose to believe that each moment, however simple, offers as much to us as the great shining moment of ecstasy, we begin to experience our lives in a different way.

What part of the rowing must you pay more attention to? Are you enjoying the moments of your life fully or waiting for some future sunset when life will be what you desire it to be?

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