Last week, I turned 40. FORTY. It has been a long road, y’all. And I’ll tell you the truth: these past five years have probably been the hardest since my 20s. (And you couldn’t pay me cash money to go back to my 20s–not a chance, people.) I have learned a ton, and most of it was hard-won. But where I am now, and how happy and grateful and satisfied and content I feel today, is worth even the heartache and the shame and the disappointment.
As much for my own record-keeping (particularly as I chart my year of MARGIN) as for any sense that I might serve as a cautionary tale, I’m sharing some of the lessons I’ve learned in these 40 years. Here’s hoping they’ll help at least some of you skip the icky parts and get right to the wonderful ones.
1. Life is about relationships.
Seems like everyone’s searching for the Meaning of Life. How many books and movies and songs are about THAT, am I right? But like so many other things we realize as we get older, the answer was right in front of us all along. I suspect that when we’re young, we think it’s a big secret or a conspiracy, maybe because the answer doesn’t seem as exciting as we expect. Or maybe because the answer, while simple, isn’t easy. But there it is, all the same, and all of us knew it all along: life is about relationships. Our purpose in being on this planet, our raison d’etre, our function as human beings, our meaning for existence, is about OTHERS. It is about how we treat them and how we make them feel, what we offer them, how we serve and love them. It is NOT about how we love them, but about how we MAKE THEM FEEL LOVED–those two things are not the same, and the closer we get to learning to love others in the way that makes THEM feel loved, the closer we get to living with open hearts. We function in a world that wants to lure us into believing that as long as we FEEL love toward others, the rest is their responsibility; it’s a lie, and it misdirects our efforts and paths again and again, to our own detriment and to the loss of more relationships than could ever be counted. Our purpose is to love others in the way that THEY feel loved, even (and sometimes especially) when that does not come easily to us. That is how we grow, it is how we sacrifice, it is how we demonstrate our devotion and commitment, and it is how we ourselves begin to learn that feeling loved by others begins by loving them first.
2. Everyone is scared.
This goes along with #1 in so many, many ways. Everyone is scared, all the time. I am scared, and so are you. And contrary to popular myth, hate is not the opposite of love–fear is. So when you are feeling fear, you CANNOT be feeling love. They cancel one another out. And when others feel scared, it is hard for them to receive the love you offer them. So if you’re doing #1 right, sometimes you don’t always know, because: everyone is scared. And it’s scary to love others, selflessly, with no guarantee that you’ll be loved in return. Ergo, you are also scared. The solution? Trust. Whew! Is that one tough. Because you feel UNloved enough, and you don’t want to trust ANYONE anymore. The only way to break the cycle is to DECIDE. And knowing that everyone is as scared as you are (and maybe a lot moreso) makes it easier to take that breath and take the leap.
3. Patience really IS a virtue.
I am not by nature a patient woman. I think fast and I decide fast and I feel certain fast. I do NOT always act fast–but that makes me even more impatient, because I know what I want and I’m often too afraid to go for it (see #2). But I have learned, through hard struggle and many, many, MANY mistakes that patience always wins the game. I have learned, as I read somewhere, that lies have speed but truth has endurance. That if we are patient and TRUST (see #2 again) and avoid jumping the gun or ringing any bells that cannot be un-rung, we often will discover that the crises that have us all hyperventilating and panicked frequently fail to come to pass. Who said, “Most people worry about things that never happen”? Because that’s an awesome quote to get you through. Be patient. Wait and see. Don’t panic. Most of the things you’re terrified about (again: #2) will never happen.
4. Be like a child (because children never rationalize their actions).
How many years have we all spent hearing the words “childish” and “juvenile” and thinking of them as BAD things? But here’s what kids have over us grown-ups: they don’t rationalize their behavior. They want? They take. And they don’t pretend they did it for any other reason than “I wanted it.” Grown-ups? We construct elaborate and carefully-balanced towers of rationalization that make it OK for us to totally screw over one another and still sleep at night. Remember when you were in high school and couldn’t wait to get out into the Real World? And then, after the four years of Fantasy Island that are college, you woke to the alarming reality that in the Real World it was actually more like high school than you wanted to admit? Blech–what a rude awakening THAT was. If it were like elementary school, it wouldn’t be so bad! At least then, when you had a meltdown or a blow out or a fist fight on the playground, you could all have snack together and the next day was a new day. It wasn’t gossip and petty squabbling and popularity contests and insecurity and lies and backstabbing and angst and anxiety. We should all work to be more like small children: be honest with ourselves and others about our motives; say we’re sorry when we do something wrong; don’t take things that don’t belong to us, don’t lie or steal; and remember that a hug can fix nearly everything.
5. Forgive (but don’t forget).
Those hugs (see #4) can fix a million little hurts–even when you’re a grown-up. But I’m not totally on board with the Everything I Need To Know I Learned in Kindergarten train. The downfall is that as much as I try to make others feel loved (#1) and to understand that they’re scared–and so am I (#2), to be patient (#3) and like a child (#4), not everyone else is playing by the same rule book as I am. Some folks don’t know the rule book exists, and bless them, they’re stumbling along doing the best they can. Others have the rule book and have never read it–or did and didn’t understand it, or understood it and realized that it’s HARD to do right and good, so they quit trying. For whatever reason, there are folks out there who lack altruism and are functioning entirely in their own self-interest. I CANNOT FIX THOSE PEOPLE. I can only love them and do the next right thing, the next thing that I know is the best thing to do. And so, when I cross paths with those folks, the only answer seems to be to forgive–but not to forget. If I were to forget the wrongs that others have committed against me, quite frankly, it would be dishonest. It would also cheat me of the lessons I learn ABOUT MYSELF from those encounters. I can’t fix them, but I can constantly seek to better myself, to grow nearer and nearer to my own goal or ideal of behavior and character. It is completely within my own best interest to forgive others–the weight of anger and blame are heavy, heavy, heavy and they have zero payoff in the long run. It is always the better move to let that go. But to forget? Then I would never learn–from the actions of others or from my own mistakes and misjudgments.
6. Every day is a new chance. So is every minute. Swallow your pride.
It is never too late to say you’re sorry. It is never too late to start over. And while we all say those things with alarming frequency, it seems as though we’re waiting for….something to give us the signal that it’s time. Man, you’re GOING TO MESS UP. It’s probably going to happen over and over. Probably more than once TODAY. It is never too late to take a deep breath, dial it back, and admit that you said the wrong thing/did the wrong thing/reacted too strongly/misjudged someone/etc. Never, ever, ever too late for that. Swallow your pride. Don’t wait for an opening. Don’t be ashamed to ask for forgiveness. Don’t worry what others will think. If you change your mind, DO IT. If you said yes but now you want to say no, SAY IT. If you lashed out in anger and realize halfway through that you were wrong, don’t keep yelling because now you’ve dug such a deep hole that you don’t see a way out so you have to keep yelling as if you’re on the side of Right just so you can save face. (I know I’m not the only one who’s ever done THAT before….) Stop, breathe, and apologize. Start over. You’re not too old for a do-over, and there is very nearly no situation that cannot be rescued by one.
7. Happiness begins at home. (That charity thing is just a trick of translation.)
I spent a lot of years–a LOT of years–chasing after a happy home life. My husband and I got married and had a bunch of babies right away, and I wasn’t sure what to do next. I’d never had a life where I didn’t work, and I thought I should keep workingworkingworking and that THEN we’d all be happy. And I don’t think I was wrong–I just didn’t understand what I was meant to be working AT. You know that catchphrase, “Charity begins at home”? The word “charity” is actually the King James translation of charity, meaning not giving to others who are less fortunate but, more simply, LOVE. LOVE begins at home. And so does happiness. Somehow I thought I’d be happier, he’d be happier, we’d all be happier if I first found my place OUTSIDE our home. I think I figured then I’d bring that happiness back with me and it would suffuse our house with a warm glow? Maybe? I don’t really know what I thought. Likely that I wasn’t really thinking all that much at ALL. What I know now, looking back and with some vantage point, is that when you are happy at home, it flows OUTWARD. And so bringing it home doesn’t really work, because what you bring home takes on the color of what’s already there–and if that’s unhappy, then all the “happy” work you did away from home fades to gray. If you first work to find happiness at home, though, then it radiates out into EVERYTHING you do. Your face beams it out and you carry it with you, to wherever you go, in whatever means you work and serve and interact with others, no matter what that work entails. There is no small job, no work more or less important, then–no worries that your contribution is too small or insignificant. Because the joy that comes with you when you go out into the world is already tremendous. Finding happiness at home, which seemed so HUGE a decade ago, is another secret that became possible when I realized it was no secret at all: it’s wrapped up in #1. Love others so that THEY feel loved. Not by offering them what you would want in order for YOU to feel loved, not by feeling love FOR them, but by doing the things and saying the words and offering the moments that make THEM feel loved. Happiness will follow–not always instantly (remember: #2) but in time (because #3). And because you are willing to forgive (#5) and ask to be forgiven (#6), and be honest with yourself about your own actions (#4), you’ll realize that John Lennon was right. Love really IS the answer, and you know that for sure.
8. There’s always time for a good book.
Never stop dreaming. Never stop learning. Never fail to be excited and surprised at how many things are left to talk about and wonder over. Never forget that you’re surrounded by others who want to love and be loved. And never underestimate the power that words on a page can have–to remind you, to chasten you, to encourage you, to support you, to allow you a temporary escape, and to call you home.