Several Things I Have Learned

Just a few things I’ve learned that are on my mind as I draw closer to my 32nd birthday…

I’m nearing the end of my thirty-second year on this planet. There’s nothing particularly special about that, but as this year wraps up, I’ve been reflecting upon a few things that I’ve learned. These aren’t remarkable things. They’re things that if you’d have explained them to me at any point, say, after my seventh birthday, I’d have probably nodded and gotten the gist of what you were saying. But there’s a difference between getting something and really understanding it. And like anything else, there’s a price for that understanding that few seven-year-olds can pay.

So here are a few of those things, collected in the spirit of “there’s nothing too obvious to be written down and shared now and again.”

There is no priority or purpose to this order. I only used numbers because people like lists.

  1. Your ego wields far too much control over your decision making.

Recognize that you AND your ego will one day die. That will reveal the triviality of much of what you spend so much time pursuing. It will create a taste for new, better things, many of which are invisible to the world around you — especially to those people from whom you’ve wanted acceptance, respect and praise.

There’s more to life than being seen.

  1. Don’t try to change people.

You have probably heard the words attributed to Mahatma Ghandi: “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” The idea is, in other words, to not desire change yet hope that others will bring it about for you. And the idea behind that, of course, is the underlying supposition that you, yourself, are not in need of change. Everyone else is, but not you. Except that’s all wrong. You do need to change. Yes, so do other people, but don’t think you can do anything about them without doing something about you. If you’re willing to accept that, then ask yourself, are you willing to change?

Start by accepting others, as they are right now. And don’t stop expecting brokenness from others until you are no longer broken. Right, that means never. There is no program, no secret knowledge, no book, no guru, no practice — no, not even a long lifetime of hours — that will lead to perfection. Not for you, not for them either. Accept your imperfection, your humanity, and enjoy the life that comes with it.

Then…

  1. To the extent that you can, change yourself.

Acceptance isn’t the same thing as apathy. In fact, I’ve learned that acceptance is the first step toward positive change. Accepting your permanent imperfection is the same as giving up on a futile quest for solving countless problems all at once — the kind of problem so big that you could waste years just trying to start. Start by acknowledging the truth about yourself and from that, tease out the stuff that’s changeable. Start small. There may be big things you wish to change that you cannot.

I spent the majority of my twenties in denial of who I am. There were people close to me — people I loved dearly — who were so very different in just about every way, and rather than accepting our differences, even celebrating them, I decided that their ways were better than mine. They were extroverts, and I, though profoundly introverted, believed I should be as well. They were spontaneous, jubilant, and playful, and I, quiet and reserved, believed I should not only come out of my shell, but destroy it and never re-enter. I observed well and was a quick study, and though I could sometimes convincingly play the part of a man remade, I was just wearing a very heavy mask. Nobody can do that forever. It’s painful. And really, nobody else wants to be around a guy in a mask, either. It’s painful for them, too, especially when they love you. So, I ended that decade sobered. The price of confronting who I really am included the end of some of the most important relationships I’d had in my life so far and a new, deep sense of fragility and humility that I doubt will ever be reduced. It’s better, really, that they don’t. There is no true life without the awareness of all that one has to lose, and of all that one is not.

I’ve realized that I can’t change the fact that I am a neurotic, hyper-observant, deeply anxious introvert with an unfortunately long memory for the troubling stuff and a short one for joy. No, I can’t change any of that. But I can practice some things that will bring the balance I need. For instance, I’m learning to practice being present, in this moment, which, though very, very hard for me, is the antidote for anxiety. I get glimpses of this working now and again and even those fleeting moments of peace and contentment make it worth the work. I can use my hyper-observance to gather the facts I need to cross-examine my own emotional conclusions: Oh really? You’re hopelessly alone and misunderstood? What about that time that so-and-so said or did that thing? Why would they do that if what you believe is true? Sound familiar?

That’s just me. Ask yourself what about you can change?

  1. Recognize that you will never truly understand someone else’s feelings for you, for better or worse.

  2. Get some therapy. It doesn’t have to be permanent. But if you’re willing to be fully honest with a therapist you trust, you stand to gain a lot.

  3. Learn to imagine the people around you as children. This will naturally encourage empathy and compassion, rather than the ugly feelings we tend to have about even those closest to us: envy, bitterness, even fear. Imagine that person with whom you may be angry as a small, helpless child. If you knew them as a child, retrieve that image from your memory of them then. I guarantee your anger will subside.

That is, unless you just don’t like children. If that’s the case, I can’t help you ;-)