This past week, I stumbled over one of those birthday milestones: 35.
It was a less than spectacular day, by my own fault. As much as I want people to fuss over me on these types of occasions, I didn’t want to face the reality that time is moving on without me.
By now, I feel that I should have figured out things so much more than I have. Nevertheless, here are five lessons that I have learned and strive to keep in mind:
1. Be kind.
This was a mantra that my mother taught us (me, my brother, my cousins, and any one else she could pin down for a few moments and remind). The world is a harsh, difficult, frustrating place. An appropriate epigram (attributed to Plato or Ian MacLaren) sums up this foundational approach to life:
“Be kind for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”
Be kind to strangers, to neighbors, to coworkers, to subordinates, to superiors, to children, to animals, to the earth, the trees, your loved ones, yourself.
Be kind, but don’t be a doormat or a pushover or a fake.
2. All relationships require effort.
Popular culture has lied to us for many, many years. There is no such thing as “true love” that lasts forever, at least not on its own.
There is love that is planted, tended, cultivated, pruned, and nurtured. Love is an over-used label for butterflies in the stomach or hormones racing through one’s nether regions. Real daily love is being able to bite your tongue when a loved one – or stranger – says something stinging and mean, to stop yourself from throwing that hurt back at them.
Love is a spectrum of effort. Everyone in our lives falls somewhere along the relationship locus – strangers, acquaintances, friends, family, soulmates.
If you want to be closer to your spouse, your friend, your neighbor, it requires effort. Sometimes a lot of effort, sometimes a little effort. Effort is measured in units of time. Read that as your time, your attention. You can’t give everyone all of your attention all of the time. But a little effort every so often goes a long way for most relationships.
Some relationships require daily maintenance. Those whom you see daily or almost daily should merit some attention. If you live with someone, you probably need to keep that relationship in tip-top shape. (The exception, I concede, would be college roommates that you never see in the flesh, only their dirty dishes).
It doesn’t take much to build relationships but it takes time. A smile, a warm genuine greeting. Asking about their weekends, their day. Remembering their names (duh!). Small gestures of kindness create a welcoming environment in the home, the workplace, the church, and so on.
Knowing someone for a long time does not negate this need. A six-year friendship or thirty-year marriage still needs tending. There are gardens that are hundreds of years old that still need regular, seasonal attention. You cannot take your relationships for granted.
When I was younger, I would repeat the Bible verse “Ask, for ye shall receive” to bolster my low self-confidence, to help me speak up. I still remind myself that it is okay to ask for help, for forgiveness, for a little mercy on rough days.
A corollary is if someone offers to help, then you probably should seriously consider accepting their offer before they change their minds. The other corollary is to say no every so often when others ask you to do more than you can realistically handle.
Asking means delegating. I can’t do it all, nor should I attempt to do so. I am not the only one capable or competent enough to do something. I read an article in Real Simple some time last year about women’s free time. Typically we don’t feel we have any, although we do. When we get home from work, then we generally feel compelled to do housework. Why aren’t men doing their share? We won’t let them, according to the results of one survey. Why not? We don’t think they do a good enough job.
I understand this sentiment. It took me a while to realize that it doesn’t matter how the laundry is folded or the floor is swept. It just needs to get done. And sometimes the dishes can wait until later.
4. Perfectionism is an excuse, not a virtue.
Perfectionism is a lie we tell ourselves when we face a potential loss of control. “I want things to be perfect” is the battle-cry for the fearful, the person who has little confidence in his or her ability to succeed.
It’s the line many students offer me to explain why they haven’t started their essays – or haven’t finished their drafts. And as I give them a warm smile (to be kind and build that relationship a little), I remind them that writing is messy, that it won’t be perfect – ever – and that is okay. They just need to sit down and write. Get a version of it done. They can always change things, make them better later.
I may as well hold up a mirror. I have already erased this very line four times trying to decide how I want to proceed. If I just wrote, I’d probably be done with this blog post already and be on the revising step. Here I am talking about the dangers of perfectionism and trying to be perfect the first time.
This lesson applies to pretty much everything in life. I do not have to try to be a perfect wife, mother, teacher, sister, neighbor, gardener, citizen, and so on. I just have to be a good one and maybe, just maybe, a great one every so often. Each of these roles takes practice to improve and learn. And no one needs to be a perfect everything all at the same time.
5. Find a release and make it a ritual.
My original title for this section was “Cuss every day.” But now that I have a toddler and live in the Bible belt and my blood pressure spikes if I start swearing at those idiots who won’t speed up to merge onto the interstate, I have cut back on cussing, like some people cut back on how much fat they consume in their diets. Cussing, cursing, swearing can be a release of emotions but it can also be the spark of a volatile wildfire.
What I really want to focus on is the idea of release: find something that allows your mind – and body – to relax, to decompress from the stress of daily life, to let go of the insufficiencies and failures of the day. A release allows you to be good to yourself, to look inside and forgive yourself for not being perfect so that you do not take out your frustrations and self-loathing on those you love.
This ritualistic release should not cause harm to you or others or the environment. It should not border on addiction or mania or obsession. This release should be restful and should be made into a ritual, preferably a daily one.
For me, I need a little time alone: ten minutes in the wee morning to drink coffee and sit on the porch when the weather is nice or watch the sunlight stretch out over the trees through the window when it’s too cold or wet.
Writing in my journal at night has once again become a ritual like prayer. Much like prayer is not for God but for the one praying, to focus our thoughts both inward and upward, writing in a journal – physically writing on paper with an actual pen literally allows the mind to look inward and outward and let go. It doesn’t really matter what I write about, I simply have to keep that brief appointment with myself and the paper.
*** *** ***
As I re-read this post for errors and clarity, I see the mess of pronouns. While I say “you” and “we”, I really mean “me.” This is all for me, but I share with you, in case you have something to add to my understanding. These lessons seem so obvious, as if they shouldn’t be things that we need to learn or re-learn. But there’s stubborn, narcissistic human nature for you. There’s my own hard-headed self-indulgence.
Thank you for reading this post.
Each person will have his or her variation of this list, of these lessons. Please do share your own lessons and examples in a comment below. If you enjoyed reading this post, please share it, pass it on.