My 20s were everything but stable. I didn’t follow directions or the law, I got arrested multiple times, I broke hearts and had my heart broken in a million pieces, I got fired from jobs, I changed my major 4 times and failed several courses because I was too busy with boys and raves.
I was aimless.
I was smart and arrogant and really annoying.
Three days from now, on St Patrick’s Day I will be turning 30 years old. I will be at a bar surrounded by friends and probably completely out of my mind when it happens. But I’m happy to report that I’m far more responsible and far less pretentious these days. I’ve changed a lot in these 10 years. I don’t get arrested anymore and I no longer spend 48 hours in the middle of nowhere raving with strangers. I got a kid, a career and I am striving to be a writer; something I never even thought would be possible.
In our instant gratification culture, it’s easy to forget that most personal change does not occur as a single static event in time, but rather as a long, gradual evolution where we’re hardly aware of it as it’s happening. We rarely wake up one day and suddenly notice wild, life-altering changes in ourselves. No, our identities slowly shift. 10 years ago I thought at 30 I would be married, with a home, a masters degree and two golden retrievers named Bronx and Brooklyn. Instead, I am single mom, I am alone, I rent and my only golden retriever Bronx just passed away last week. But I am much wiser and self controlled, two words that I never thought I would use to describe myself.
It’s only when we stop years or decades later and look back that we can notice all of the dramatic changes that have taken place. Just as it is difficult to see all the opportunities life gives you until you’re looking back, it is virtually impossible to fully understand certain life circumstances until they actually happen to you. It’s a variation of this final point that I want to explore further today – some important life lessons almost everyone learns the hard way eventually and that I wish I would have learned earlier.
1. The people you lose remain a part of you.
Someday you will be faced with the reality of loss. Either be a friend, a family member or even a pet. It could a divorce or death. The pain of loss is not defined by exact terms. It’s different for everyone. And as life goes on, days rolling into nights, it will become clear that you never really stop missing someone special who’s gone, you just learn to live around the gaping hole of their absence.
When you lose someone you can’t imagine living without, your heart breaks wide open, and the bad news is you never completely get over the loss. You will never forget them. However, in a backwards way, this is also the good news. They will live on in the warmth of your broken heart that doesn’t fully heal back up, and you will continue to grow and experience life, even with your wound. It’s like badly breaking an ankle that never heals perfectly, and that still hurts when you dance, but you dance anyway with a slight limp, and this limp just adds to the beauty of the dance.
2. Unfortunately the good times pass, and fortunately so do the bad ones.
Pursuing happiness is not at all the same as being happy, which is a fleeting feeling dependent on momentary circumstances. If the sun is shining, by all means bask in it. Happy times are great and often fun-filled, but happy times pass, because time passes. This is something we rarely grasp at first.
Enjoy the happy times. Indulge in it. Don’t take it for granted. Because there will also be times when things go so wrong that you barely feel alive. When this happens do not despair. Sit with yourself. Feel the pain. Don’t try to avoid it. Sorrow is part of everyone’s lifetime. Its the consequence of having an open and passionate heart. Feel your heart breaking and know with every molecule of your body that it will pass. Just like happy times, sad times have an expiration date as well, even if it feels like it doesn’t.
Life isn’t all or nothing; all good or all bad. it’s all AND nothing, with ups and downs and worthwhile lessons along the way.
3. Your parents are people too.
Perhaps the most disillusioning realization of my 20s: seeing my mom not as the all-knowing protector like I did as a child, and not as the obnoxious and totally uncool authoritarian like I did as a teenager, but a peer, as just a flawed, vulnerable, struggling person doing her best despite often not knowing what the hell she is doing.
Chances are your parents screwed some things up during your childhood. Pretty much all of them do. As a mom myself now, I know the old cliche “Kids aren’t born with instruction manuals” to be more truthful than anything else in life.
But perhaps the first duty of adulthood — true adulthood, not just taxed adulthood — is the acknowledgment, acceptance, and (perhaps) forgiveness of one’s parent’s flaws. They’re people too. They’re doing their best, even though they don’t always know what the best is.
Have you ever heard the cliché that life is short so we need to seize the moment? Well it is. Life is too short and the world is too big for life to be lived in one place. Life’s most valuable things aren’t possessions. It’s the places we see and the memories we make. Stop waiting for a boyfriend to go on that cruise you’ve always wanted to go on or for your best friend to have money to join you on a backpacking trip through Europe. Save money. Book a ticket to a place you’ve never been before. Even if you have to go alone. The world is not a scary place out to get you.
When you are young, your greatest asset is not your talent, not your ideas, not your experience, but your time. Time grants you the opportunity to take big risks and go on big adevntures. Chances are you aren’t strapped by all of the financial responsibilities that come with later adulthood: mortgage payments, car payments, daycare for your kids, life insurance and so on. This is the time in your life where you have the least amount to lose by taking some long term vacation, so you should take them.
There is something powerful in movement. Wander. Explore. Be wild. The only cage we are expected to live in, is the ones we built for ourselves.
5. Life is too unpredictable for rigid expectations.
When you stop predicting and expecting things to be a certain way, you can appreciate them for what they are. Ultimately you will realize that life’s greatest gifts are rarely wrapped the way you expected.
With a positive attitude and an open mind, you will find that life isn’t necessarily any easier or harder than you thought it was going to be; it’s just that “the easy” and “the hard” aren’t exactly the way you had anticipated, and don’t always occur when you expect them to. This isn’t a bad thing; it makes life interesting.
When things don’t turn out how you expected, accept it. Maybe you made mistakes along the way that contributed to the outcome or maybe it was just an illusion that never really was what you thought it was. Either are very hard to accept, to realize that you feel a sense of loss, even though you never really had what you thought you had in the first place.
On the other hand, sometimes we have this idea of how the perfect partner will be or the perfect job or the perfect city, and we end up taking for granted or pushing away everyone and everything that doesn’t fit that pre disposed idea in our head.
I for example never expected to be raising a child on my own. I always thought I would either get married and have tons of kids or I would stay single without any kids. The in between was never an option.
Life happened though. I got pregnant. My son’s father walked out on me and my child before he was even born, and I found myself living a life completely different than I had ever imagined. Its not worse, its not better. But its excitingly and surprisingly fulfilling.
Sometimes everything we’ve always wanted will show up in a completely different package. Either be a partner who is the opposite of what you envisioned, an unexpected pregnancy or a whole new city. Be open to life.
6. When you try to run away, you end up running in place.
“Don’t think about eating that chocolate donut!” What are you thinking about now? Eating that chocolate donut, right? When you focus on not thinking about something, you end up thinking about it.
The same philosophy holds true when it comes to freeing your mind from a negative past experience. By persistently trying to move away from someone or from what you didn’t like, you are forced to think about it so much that you end up carrying its weight along with you.
Running away from your problems or your past is a race you’ll never win. Move TOWARDS something instead of AWAY. Rather than trying to eliminate the negative memory or anything that reminds you of it, focus on creating a new positive memory or link to that experience that just happens to replace the negative.
7. Unanticipated hardships are inevitable.
Nobody in this world is going to blindside you and hit you as hard as life will. Sometimes life will beat you to the ground and try to keep you there if you let it. But it’s not about how hard life can hit you, it’s about how hard you can be hit while continuing to move forward. That’s what strength is and that’s what winning the game of life is all about.
Having gone through many painful experiences, trust me when I say that I know there are days when even getting out of bad is the worlds most difficult task. There are days when eating and showering just seems harder than running a marathon.
I’ve been there many times. Sometimes I still do.
But When you have a lot to cry and complain about, but you prefer to smile and take a step forward instead, you are growing stronger. Work through your struggles and hardships. Even when it feels like things are falling apart, they’re not. Take control of your emotions before they take control of you. Everything will fall into place eventually. Until then, learn what you can, laugh loud without worrying who is looking and focus on the positive.
8. Beg no one to stay when they have decided to leave.
If someone loves you, they will make time for you, they will call you and they will show you. Either be a friend, a parent or a romantic partner. This is something it took me years to learn and sometimes I even find myself struggling to practice.
Life is not perfect. Life can be hard. There will a few people that you will fall in love with who won’t fall in love with you or who will for a period of time but one day will break your heart by leaving. There will be people who will walk away for no reason at all. There will be people who wont even bother giving you a chance. You can be the best person you can be. You can treat them the best way they have ever been treated, but you cannot make them see you or love you.
Let them go. Let them become the strangers they want to become to you.
You will miss them. You might even still love them for months or years after they leave. That’s okay. Love them from a distance. Send love their way. But don’t beg for their love.
Love is too noble of a feeling to be bargained.
9. Life is not a competition.
Life is not a competition, it’s a journey. There are no podiums and no medals. The race is only with yourself. Stop comparing your life and accomplishments to those around you. There will always be someone better looking, someone richer, someone more successful. The goal is not to be better than everyone, that’s unattainable. The goal is to be better than you were yesterday. It might sound cheesy but you are literally the only person you need to compare yourself to.
Nobody really knows what they are doing. Everyone is just trying to live the best way they know how and working off of their best guess You can’t have everything. You can’t be the best at everything. You can’t accomplish all your goals. So focus on doing a few things really well.
Did I grow? Did I learn? Did I do better than last time?
These are the only competitive questions you need to be asking yourself.
10. Guilt is good. Shame is bad.
A lot of people think shame and guilt are the same thing. Don’t be fooled. It’s not.
Guilt is a feeling of responsibility or remorse for some offense. Its that feeling you get when you do something wrong or bad that you know you shouldn’t have done. Guilt guides most of us to always do the right thing. It’s the radar we have that is highly connected to our morals and conscience. When we make mistakes guilt tells us “what I did is bad”. And it gives us an opportunity to either fix it or apologize for it.
Shame on the other hand is not a radar, it doesn’t guide us to do the right thing. Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging. While guilt says “what I did is bad”, shame says “I am bad”. Shame is an emotional and psychological belief that destroys our self esteem. It’s a learned belief that thankfully can be unlearned.
In January 2011 I went through the worst experience of my life. I was young, irrational and had let a man I deeply love get the best of me. The consequences were detrimental to my life. And at the time I felt a lot of guilt and even more shame. I was ashamed of my actions. Ashamed of my life. Ashamed of me. Unlike guilt that propels us forward to do the right thing next time, the shame didn’t propel me anywhere. It kept me stuck in the past, in that horrific moment of my life.
Throughout your life you will make many good choices and you will make many bad ones too. You are human. Life didn’t come with directions or a manual guide. Your bad choices aren’t who you are. You are not bad. Let the shame go.
11. You can’t force friendships.
There are two types of friends in life: the kind that when you go away for a long time and come back, it feels like nothing’s changed, and the kind that when you go away for a long time and come back, it feels like everything’s changed.
I’ve spent my life living in a number of different cities and two different continents. Unfortunately, that means that I’ve left a lot of friends behind in various places. What I’ve discovered over this time is that you can’t force a friendship with someone. Either it’s there or it’s not, and whatever “it” is, is so ephemeral and magical that neither one of you could even name it if you tried to. You both just know.
What I’ve also found is that you can rarely predict which friends will stick with you and which ones won’t. I left LA in the spring of 2011 and came back 3 years later. Many of the people I was closest to when I left could hardly even be bothered to call me back when I returned. Yet, some of my more casual acquaintances slowly became the closest friends in my life. It’s not that those other people were bad people or bad friends. It’s nobody fault. It’s just life.
12. Go where the love is.
I left this for last because it’s the most important lesson I have recently learned and I wish I would have learned earlier. It would have saved me a lot of tears and countless heartbreaks.
In life, we must learn to appreciate and love people who appreciate and love us. This is something I still struggle with. Have been abandoned by both my mother and my father as a child, I have unconsciously associated love to chasing and absence. I have taken for granted many people who showed me love and kindness and I have found myself falling in love for those who push me away.
There is an urban myth that teaches us, since the times of Shakespeare, that real love must be hard and painful. And that if the road to it is not difficult it must not be real love.
I call that bullshit. Love should not be hard. It should not be painful. Love shouldn’t involve a dramatic effort to “conquer” the person you love. Love is easy. Love is not butterfly feelings in our stomach. That’s anxiety and fear of losing someone.
Think of the love you feel for your best friend or a sibling. The adventures you go together. The conversations you have about life. And the day to day you experience together. Although some times there might be some arguments, overall It’s easy. You don’t feel anxious about hearing from you friend. If you miss them, you call them. There are no games and there are no butterfly feelings or fear that they wont reciprocate the attention and feelings you have for them.
That’s love. That’s the kind of love you should look for in the people you date. Easy. Comfortable.
So stop chasing the people who hurt you because you think that love is selfless and understanding. Stop wanting people who don’t text you back, who don’t notice how great you are or who doesn’t take care for you the way you take care of them. Instead, appreciate the ones who do. Give a chance to that coworker who is always checking in on you. Or to the girl who goes out of her way to take care of you when you are sick or is always helping you out whenever you need. The exciting guys (and girls) rarely stick around. And if they do, the feeling of excitement itself wont. After some time, the butterflies will fly away, the excitement and passion will fade, and the only thing left will be your friendship and how well you two work together.
Your life will be much happier when you learn to love those who love you and let those who don’t, go.
Go where the love is.