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'Why Did You Do Something You Didn't Want to Do?'

My kids are at an age where they are constantly asking for definitions of words and phrases. Answering these questions is sometimes easy, sometimes tiresome and at times genuinely challenging. Oftimes a word or concept is so familiar that despite frequent use, I struggle to give my kids a satisfying definition. This is good. Should I really be throwing around words that I can’t readily define? But sometimes, there is resistance. Not just when we are several sub-definitions down the rabbit hole of a line of kindergarten cross-examination. Why can’t I go on using this word without being able to provide a dictionary-grade definition?

On a recent trip to the nation’s capital, though, I found myself again on daddy dictionary duty. We traipsed through the Museum of Natural History, where we saw the Hope Diamond among other gems and jewels (“Dad, what’s a carat?”) and learned about environmental pollution (“Dad, what’s plastic?”). Departing downtown, I decided to swing by Georgetown on our way out of the city. This was of course, an over-ambitious thing to do with traveling children who had slept in a hotel the night before and just finished a museum visit. I knew that the first priority (seemingly as always) was to get the kids some food. After parking, as we walked down the quaint, cobble-stoned streets of Georgetown, I pointed out aspects of the neighborhood that I recognized along the way. “That's where I used to live!” I said as we passed by the townhouse in which I lived during my final year as an undergraduate.

Georgetown, 2004

“Let’s go see who lives there now!” my son stated more than asked. “Let’s keep going,” I replied. “I wanna see who’s there!” he said, starting to dig in. “Let’s go get lunch,” I suggested, hoping to avoid a stand off. “I’m going to talk to them!” my son proclaimed as he started to march himself up to the front steps. At this point I asked myself, ‘Am I going to physically restrain him from knocking on this door?’ ‘No,’ I thought, ‘this is harmless. Better to embrace his curiosity. We’ll say hi and then be on our way.’

Georgetown, 2023

The man who answered the door appeared to be of Georgetown-parent age, with thinning salt and pepper hair, dressed in a Hoyas quarter zip and jeans. Suitcases stood by the door. Half-eaten lunch lay on the coffee table where the man’s wife and daughter, a Georgetown senior and current resident of the house, were seated. I briefly explained our mission. “Come on in!” he exclaimed. “Show them around the house!” the mom suggested. I remained slightly chagrined (“Dad, what’s chagrined?), but my kids were all too happy to take up the offer to tour the house. However, they immediately demonstrated their preference for a self-guided tour rather than a guided version. The five-year-olds zoomed off into the house as I unlaced my boots, playing catch up already.

Structurally, the house was essentially the same. The furnishings and decor were changed. Even the outside brick had been repainted. The student we had just met happened to occupy the same bedroom I had. Interestingly, the building itself held no nostalgia or even a sense of familiarity. The structure was the same, down to the shower just off the downstairs kitchen (really?) and the wrought iron gate at the entrance to the arched alleyway between the houses (“Dad, a jail gate!”). But I felt my connection to it was more to a sense of place than a physical appearance. It was a point of reference from which I had once viewed the city, the world. A locus for the everyday stuff of relationships, some ongoing, some lapsed. But that locus had shifted, and no longer occupied this physical place.

Now was not the time for reverie though (“Dad, what’s reverie?”). My kids were enjoying exploration, novelty. After corralling them back to the downstairs, I tried to wrap up our visit and leave these Sunday people to their Sunday plans. My kindergarteners had, however, entered rapid-fire question mode, like the neighbor kid in Home Alone. My son established that, unlike us, the young lady had not gone downtown the previous day to bear witness to the Hoyas getting trounced by a Big East rival at CapitalOne Arena. The patient young lady explained to him that she could not have attended, because she “had to” go to another commitment. Looking her dead in the eyes, (“Dar-rell, I looked this woman dead in the windows of her soul!”) he asked her unblinkingly, “Why did you do something you didn’t want to do?”

It was so innocent, so simple. I wanted to apologize for his critical directness. I wanted to make excuses for her and explain how competing agendas required decision-making based on priorities. But most of all, I wanted to internalize his wisdom. I wanted to borrow some of that innocence and apply it to my own life, whose remaining moments likely (and hopefully) are fewer than his. There are certainly many times when doing something unpalatable is wise. But I only want to do that if I’m investing in some future state. I recently heard Ric Elias point out that time can either be wasted, spent or invested. The challenge (for time as well as money): never waste it, and find the right balance between spending and investing. “Why did you do something you didn’t want to do?” You better have a good reason.

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