At this juncture in my life, I wanted to take stock of lessons that have served me well. It's a way to look back at past experiences, but also a reminder of these things for future generations should the conversation ever come up (my nephews and goddaughters come to mind).
- "And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free."
Not just one of my favorite bible verses, but it's also etched into the wall of a federal institution that ascribes to it for the same reasons I do. Truth is the most precious thing in life because it is also the foundation for realistic hope and strategic progress.
- Excel if you're able, because why not?
This sort of stemmed from a conversation I once had with my mentor. I was relaying my rationale for not taking some of my classes seriously because the content was review of material I'd heard before, so I didn't feel like it merited the mental expenditure. She looked at me and asked simply, "Why not?" which was actually a good question. 🤔 Life is short, so if you're going to do it anyway, why not do it proper? (Same goes for acts of sin too; let's be real.)
- Consider the content of the criticism, not the way it's being offered.
If the content is true, own it; otherwise, it doesn't matter. The way it's being offered is more a reflection of the other person than of you. Also, criticism grounded in truth is a hard labor of love; it sucks when no one cares enough to tell you that you're wrong. And if it's coming from adversarial lips, all the more awesome that they're inadvertently making you better, so joke's on them.
- You are not unique.
It's actually better that way, because you'll want the camaraderie in life. Know that you'll probably have to work like everybody else, and if you don't, it'll suck like it would for anyone else. Shit happened? Find the ones who've survived it or are surviving it, and share life with them. Good things happen? Have the humility to know that it's happened before or was well within someone's capacity to have done it before. Consider this thing the Internet has proved to us: every fuckin weirdo has a tribe.
- No stone to throw.
There will be conflict. But everyone in it has a story, bottom line. I may or may not be able to relate. It doesn't mean that I need to sympathetically remain in bad situations or accept maltreatment – but who knows what's going on (or been going on) in the other person's shoes? Sometimes the best I can do is acknowledge the heartache, remind myself what I will and will not accept, and move on with as much grace and integrity as I can.
- How to get over a loss: remember what you still have.
This one's awkward because it sounds like something people say to diminish a loss they do not feel. But that's not what I mean. Some of the hardest but inevitable things to accept in life are the losses – of friends, jobs, or opportunities. In the raging heartbreak of ruptured relationships, the one thing that filled my cup was the fact that there are still people in this world who are good people and count me among their friends. And that doesn't take the darkness away, but it does make bright colors brighter, which is kind of a salve for the heart.
- Life is capricious.
One of my main takeaways from Man's Search for Meaning and Meditations on Violence is that there are so many things that happen by chance. In the Holocaust people have died trying to live, and people have lived when they thought death was certain. In chaotic acts of violence, sometimes the stars align, and sometimes someone is unlucky. The best you can do is the best you can do, but the result is not fully in your control. If there is meaning to be had from the doing, let that be enough.
- Loss is unavoidable.
No, it doesn't get easier, and yes it hurts every time because I may not develop a response for it (and sometimes a response – i.e., shutting down – isn't really appropriate). Some things are too heavy for trite explanation. But I am old enough by now to know that, so help me God, I'll be OK.
- Joy is just as real as pain.
Studies have shown that painful memories create far more of a mental imprint than happy ones. Evolutionarily, it makes sense – our survival requires us to recognize bad scenarios so we can more quickly respond to them in the future. What's crazy – to me at least, maybe because of my tendency toward depression – is that the joy, love, and happiness you experience in life is just as real, just as valid, even if you can't remember them. And those moments are worth writing down or commemorating in some way.
- Sleep is important.
If there's one thing I wish I could make my younger self understand, it's the importance of sleep. It's vital to building muscle, remembering names, regulating emotions, making good decisions, curbing overeating, preventing Alzheimer's, etc. "And also, younger self," I would say, "I've had to refactor plenty of code written in the dark of night because you wrote dumb things and didn't even realize it."
- Be good to good people. Let them know you love them if you do.
The world is so full of loneliness and disconnection, and each new story of yet another taking their life makes me wonder if the presence of a friend could have changed the story. It costs nothing to say a kind word or reach out and affirm someone. You never know who might need it as a lifeline. The interesting thing about depression is that two people at negative who connect become a positive; why does the math work like that?
- Learn how to learn.
Not a moral imperative, but it's important in this day and age to identify your unknown unknowns, and learn how to learn. One of my favorite quotes from Alvin Toffler: "The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn." The more I observe about life, the more I see how true that is.
- When faced with a new problem, start with what you know.
I may not know the whole solution from the get-go, but sometimes the answer is multiple incomplete solutions. Or tackling the low-hanging fruit first, which clues me in on what to do next. Or, if the first step wasn't the right step, that is a new data point that I didn't have before, which is also progress.
- Time is a significant variable.
I couldn't have learned this in my younger more frenetic days, but some things just take time. Sometimes time is the only variable left; building muscle, learning new skills, growing out a bad haircut, healing from wounds, sleeping. Also, did I mention that sleeping is important?
- Passion comes from mastery.
In looking back on all the times I've had to learn something new, I find that developing fluency in a topic or skill is really what drives my passion for those things. I never started out being a techie, but grew into it. I never knew I would love DC, but I've grown into it (even though it still drives me nutty). I grow into passions rather than chase them. It's a little bit like falling in love after the marriage, and this only happens when you give your best shot.
- "Do not despise these small beginnings..."
Even if I could only work out for 10 minutes a day, that's 70 min/week more than if I didn't bother because I only had 10 minutes. Even if I could only invest 2% of every paycheck, that adds up faster than if I didn't think 2% was worth saving at all. If I learned a new skill every day, that's 365 more skills by the end of the year than had I not bothered to learn. "You have the time; you just need to choose," a friend of mine once said.
- Acknowledge the negative space.
I think one of the more rewarding experiences in my life thus far has been developing awareness of situations that catch my discomfort, fears, or triggers. I've found that I frequently shut off my emotions to the point where I'm surprised when they surface. The fact that they surface at all can be shocking, but they ask nothing more than that I sit and explore them a bit, figure them out, and resolve the issues that bind them to me. In the process, I learn about myself, which in turn gives me the eyes to see others.
- The journey is the message.
At the time, I was telling my husband about my plans to work overseas, and after we talked about what that would look like, he held me tenderly and said, "I think someday we're going to look back and miss our time living here in this home with a view, with our little dog, griping about the things we gripe about." There's a wisdom to that.
- The older I get, the better life seems to be.
I don't know how long this will hold true, but I actually really enjoy my 30s; they are funner than my 20s. There's less angst, more self-acceptance, more confidence that I know what the rules are (and how to break them). There's also more letting go of dumb shit, because I've seen things, tried things, and know now when I can't be bothered. Life's just better.
- Keep working out though.
I intend to maintain my range of motion and strength as much as I can for as long as I can, now that the growing crowd of happy, healthy older people have demonstrated the possibilities. Sleep is going to be pretty important here, though. Did I mention the importance of sleep already?