Today is my 60th birthday. Birthdays that end in “0” make us want to reflect on our lives and our accomplishments. I am no exception – and I have more time than usual for some introspection. Here is my list of life lessons learned:
1. Let kindness and honesty be your guides. These two considerations must be taken together. Brutal honesty all the time is not kind, and not necessary. On the flipside, we can believe that leaving someone in the dark is kind, but honesty is usually much better. There is a balance to consider.
I keep way more things to myself than I did in my younger years. No one wants or needs to hear my opinions on every little thing. However, sometimes I feel a need to speak up. The questions I ask myself are: “Will knowing this help the other person in the long run?” and “Am I saying it for them or for my own ego?”
Everyone has to make their own decisions on how much honesty is kind. I tend to lean toward truth and appreciate it when others do the same with me. In my experience, people figure stuff out eventually. When they discover that you’ve known all along, there is a breach of trust that can never be fully repaired. Trust is the commodity of relationships.
2. Exercise self-control. Exercise is the appropriate word here because the more we use our self-control, the stronger it gets. Without self-control, we can’t honor #1 on the list because we are always blurting and giving in to our ego’s needs.
The big regrets that I have in life are when I lost my temper and lashed out at someone. It doesn’t happen often anymore, but I still feel bad about a few times when I lost control and yelled at my children when they were young.
3. Self-care is crucial. We cannot exercise self-control and make intentional choices around kindness and honesty if we don’t take care of ourselves. My biggest losses of self-control happened when several things in life were not going well. Stress puts us on edge and robs us of our ability to see the big picture and choose our words and actions wisely.
The antidote for stress is self-care, which will look different for each of us. For some people, self-care includes running or walking. For others, it means writing or drawing. We all need to have more than one self-care technique in our lives that allows us to center and regroup. Meditation is one great self-care technique that has tons of research proving its benefits.
4. Spend your emotional pennies wisely. I try not to spend emotional pennies on things that I cannot influence or control. If I can control it, I can change it. If I can influence it, I must decide if changing the thing is worth the emotional pennies that it will cost.
The most helpful phrase for me when conserving emotional pennies is “the chair is a chair.” You can read my blog on the quote from Triggers by Marshall Goldsmith. Basically, it means that certain people and situations are not going to change, and it’s best for me if I accept that.
5. Connect with others. I learned this one late in life. We humans crave connection with each other. I have always accepted the value of rugged individualism and was determined in my youth to make it on my own. Sixty years have shown me that it is impossible to make it on your own. Success happens with the support of a community.
Happiness also happens with the support of a community. The micro-moments of positivity we share with others are one type of building block we need to build a positive outlook on life.
6. Prepare for the worst, but expect the best. I am a firm believer in being prepared if everything goes to hell in a handbasket. However, I don’t believe in dwelling on the possibility. It’s important to assess, prepare, and then focus on a positive outcome that we want.
I ordered gloves and masks well before there was a shortage and then went on not thinking about it. I bought an extra six-pack of toilet paper at the grocery store while plenty was on the shelf but didn’t stress about it.
On a grander scale, when I was a stay-at-home mom, I put the utilities in my name to build credit. I went back to school and got my MBA. My goal was to be able to jump to self-sufficiency if anything happened to my then-husband. He would get irritated with me and insist I expected the worst of him. I pointed out that he could be hit by a bus on any given day. The fact that he was in the Army made his demise more likely than many others.
However, I never dwelt on the possibilities of my ex’s death or infidelity. I just prepared for the worst and went on living life and expecting everything to go well. The worst did eventually happen. I am grateful for a life of not expecting it – and for being prepared so I could move to self-sufficiency with relative ease.
7. Work to be vulnerable and loving despite the cruel blows that you will suffer. First, everyone suffers cruel blows in life. Cruel blows are a part of life. I’ve learned that it’s best to expect them and to not take them as personal affronts. Suffering disappointment, humiliation, and failure makes us human and more empathetic to the plight of others. Suffering is also an opportunity for growth.
And if you just scoffed or huffed at me, I totally get it. It sounds like a superficial platitude to me, as well, but that doesn’t make it any less true. I chose the word “work” for a reason. As far as I am concerned, putting my heart out on the line, knowing it will be crushed again, is work. It’s not easy at all and it’s a constant challenge.
Brenė Brown’s research on vulnerability helps me. She talks about the courage required to put yourself out there as a possible target for ridicule and deception. Maintaining that courage is work, but it’s worthwhile work. We cannot live a life full of joy and accomplishment if we live safely protecting our hearts. She talks a lot about this quote from Theodore Roosevelt:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
As I look back over the last 60 years, I haven’t been timid very often, but I have become bitter at times. Since I’m reviewing things that greatly influenced how I live, I feel I must include these charts from Richard Rohr, a Franciscan friar ordained to the priesthood of the Roman Catholic Church.
Side note: These graphs depict different paths for men and women. I believe that this is because of how we are socialized, not because of major, inherent differences. I also hope that younger women find that their path is not so different as the one Rohr describes for men. I can’t speak to their experiences, but the graph resonates with me and my experience in many ways.
I discovered these graphs in my oldest son’s coat pocket when I was in my late 40s. (I was about to wash his coat per his request – not snooping!) They changed the trajectory of my life. I could see clearly that if I did not change, I was headed for the Embittering Journey, and I didn’t want to end my life bitter and resentful. I worked to embrace joy and acceptance.
Now at 60, I find myself in danger of becoming the “Witch on Her Broom” who is filled with rage. The last bit – “going nowhere – except to blame others and protect herself” – is a particular danger for me right now. That’s why Brown’s writings about vulnerability resonate with me.
My life lessons list, which is as much a list of goals for living my life as anything else, is a result of wanting to become a Holy Fool. I want to “live with paradox and mystery, with compassion and forgiveness.”
I know all of those things are mine if I make some intentional choices. I love the Magic Wand of Destiny!
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