Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Thirty Lessons in Thirty Years

Today I turn 30 years old. To some of you, birthdays aren't a big deal but to me they are Buddy Christ's way of saying, "You know what? Imma play your song. Top of the hour, every hour, for just one day. Get your groove on, girl."
Thirty is extra special given my health and the struggles I've gone through to keep afloat, as it were. People often (and sometimes condescendingly) congratulate me on, well, being alive. I more often than not wave off these accolades because hey, what the hell did I do? I'm just alive. If you want to go congratulate someone go shake the hands of every medical professional that bothered to take notes and give a damn. With some pensive pondering though I've come to associate endearments like 'brave' or 'courageous' in a way that I am sure wasn't intended but I will accept regardless. Survival is instinctual and I cannot take the credit for that, and general maintenance of my ticker is just par for the course as well - but the social aspect of living with a congenital heart defect? The twists and turns I have to make just to maneuver through this life? The hoops I have to jump through to succeed in any small way? The sacrifice of my own personal freedom for the sake of my health? Yes, I will accept those congratulations.

While thirty years may be the blink of an eye in the historical archive of humanity, I'd like to think I have had been on this planet in this life long enough to have learned some valuable lessons along the way. Not that I have stopped learning; no, no. I may not have completed college but I'm a lifelong student at The School of Life. Here's a sampling of what I've learned in 30 years:

1) I cannot change/help a person that does not want to be changed/help
Simultaneously the most obvious and difficult of lessons to learn, yet vital for every human being to be taught. I may have a heart the proverbial size of a whale, with the most earnest of intentions coursing through it, but if whomever my good intentions are aimed at does not ask for them, there is simply nothing I can do but let it be known I'm there when they need me, then walk away. It's painful; it will always be painful for me to go through this but I have learned the hard way that pushing only makes the situation worse.

2) Knowing when to walk away
This can go hand in hand with the above or it can be applied to moments of anger and bickering. I can go from 0 to Defensive in under 5 seconds and knowing when to throw my hands up and simply walk away is something I have been working on since early adulthood.

3) Don't feed the trolls
Piggy-backing off of the above, I've been in enough feuds with the Interwebs to know that when to walk away from a situation before it becomes a situation. Don't raise to the bait; walk away from my computer/environment, go bitch at a neutral party that isn't going to cache my words, then let the moment pass. Carry on as usual. I've become a lot better at putting this into practice.

4) Let the Volcano erupt
I live with a person who has a volcanic temperament; she erupts in molten fire that'll burn your damn face right off. After an initial eruption and a bit of sputtering, though, she goes back to rational thought and serenity. It's a real marvel to witness this force of human nature and I have had to force myself to keep calm, stand back and let the volcano do what she is going to do. All will be well momentarily and the day will go on as usual; there is no need for me to poke at the volcano and keep it going. Again, still a struggle but the epiphany I had some 10 years ago when I realized this was all I had to do to not have my entire day ruined - oh my goodness! It was not unlike a bouncer letting me skip the line at a club; "Nah, baby, you cool."

5) I know Feck-All 
Some of the most dangerous words ever strung together are: "I know how you feel" or "I know what you're going through." I attempt to catch myself before I say this to someone in ignorance masquerading as empathy, or at least have the decency to back-pedal and say, "Well, no, I don't but you have my empathy." or "I can't relate to exactly what you're going through, but I have gone through (such and such)." I think if everyone set their brain-to-mouth filter on HIGH before they said these words it would actually increase genuine empathy by +20.

6) Keep and Updated Brain-to-Mouth Filter
Essentially a brain-to-mouth filter is what The Kids These Days say in lieu of "think before you speak." I like the filter analogy better because a filter is something one needs to clean out and update from time to time. Keeping up-to-date knowledge on the goings on of the people in my life and adjusting accordingly e.g. Has someone gone through something so traumatic recently that a dead baby joke would be totally inappropriate now? You know, that sort of thing.

7) It's OK to wear mismatching socks
When I was in elementary school I was mercilessly taunted by a group of girls. For years they picked at me, the target of their teasing mostly aimed at the clothes I wore; specifically because I mismatched my clothes. I honestly had no clue how to 'match' my clothes, nor did I have any interest in acquiring this knowledge. My mom didn't believe in dressing her children once they hit school age; kids ought to be able to wear what they want to (within reason) and these girls were always meticulously dressed from head to toe, looking like they were in their Sunday best because their mothers had much influence over what they wore. My mom was even approached by these mothers and asked why she permitted me to leave the house with "mismatching socks." Mom essentially replied, "Haters, I got more important things to give a feck about than my kid wearing one yellow sock and one pink sock. Y'all have too much time on your hands." Something like that. Mom backing me up told me that it is OK to wear what I want, have my own style and not look like a child extra from The Village of the Damned. 

8) There is no such thing as too many Please and Thank You's
This is a preschool lesson that really stuck with me. Please and Thank you's go a long way and it never fails to irk me when someone can't be bothered to say either of these phrases. I may still struggle to keep up with some of these other lessons, but this one I am proud to say is automatic.

9) I don't always need to be sorry
While there may be no such thing as too many please and thank you's, there is such a thing as saying I am sorry too many times. I compulsively apologize whenever I think I am inconveniencing someone, be it a beg of pardon as I squeeze by someone and get up in their personal space, a genuine heartfelt apology because I erred in some way, or for having a differing opinion. This is where I need to draw the line. I am truly not sorry for having feelings, thoughts and opinions that differ from someone else's and apologizing for them is disingenuous. Reworking my delivery is the challenge, but it's one worth rising to as fake apologies would be worse.

10) Friends are Forever
I take extraordinary amounts of pride in my friendships and being a good friend; I'd even go so far to say it's my best quality as a human being. My friendships mean more to me than anything else and I try to nurture them as best I can.

11) Nothing trumps a handwritten letter

12) Never trivialize another person's experiences/thoughts/emotions
What I may consider small potatoes might be A Huge Deal to another person. It's important to hear them out, verbally acknowledge whatever issue they're taking the time to share with me before proceeding to share my own thoughts.

13) Music saves lives
I'm not an audiophile, I've got the musical talent of a brick and my taste in music has been compared to that of a heroin addict, but by God music has changed my life and I am learning to let it evolve by being open to new artists.

14) Complimenting strangers is fun
I'm not what you'd call shy, but at some point in my late teens and early 20's I forgot how to approach strangers in casual conversation. I've discovered that a simple compliment will do the trick, and hey if it puts a smile on their face, that's awesome.

15) Spoiling others is awesome
"'Tis better to give than it is to receive" is an old adage every kid dreads to hear because they can't imagine anything more awesome than receiving presents. While I love a good present, my joy at holidays comes from spoiling my mother and indulging her geeky side. If I could afford to get something awesome for all of my friends on their birthday I would. As it is, however...see #16

16) Cooking is Love
It's a shame my grandmother - whom I share my birthday with - is not with us anymore, as I know she would be incredibly proud of my culinary skills. Cooking is very personal for me and it is the way I spoil my family & friends; it's my way of saying I love you.

17) The greatest thing you'll ever learn is Just to Love
I've come across people who hold their 'love' close to the vest; that is, they use the word sparingly because they feel it ought to be granted to only the most deserving. I respect but don't agree with this philosophy. Contrariwise, I feel the word love should be used as often as possible, whenever possible. I'd rather wear my heart on my sleeve and let my emotions show bright and clear than leave anyone questioning or in doubt of my feelings. Love is a positive affirmation and if there is anything this world is in constant need of, it is love.

18) Time is not for squandering
Up front honesty is best in every situation and should I fumble and hesitate I will miss opportunities that I will regret. No hesitation. Just jump. Landing hard doesn't compare to the pain of What If...

19) One is not the loneliest number
Being comfortable with myself came naturally to me considering the amount of time I spent alone as a child. Eating out, going to the movies and other leisure activities is fun with friends but I've no fear in going solo. If I can't enjoy being with me, who will?

20) Use Tiger Mom wisely
Lord help the individual that messes with my mom's children. Throughout my life I've had to pick which battles grew too big for me to handle and wield my trump card: Tiger Mom. She will cut you up and eat you alive. If I used her for all of my battles, though, I'd not be able to cope with any sort of adversary. Over time I have had to learn how to use her sparingly as I developed my own skills in handling a crisis.

21) Order something different
My brother was the first to get after me with this lesson. I was/am the kind of person content to order the same dish from the same restaurant, never opening myself to trying something new. What if I didn't like it? I had to learn how to order something different, to open myself up to new experiences and challenges. 

22) It's a Small World After All
The world is smaller than I initially thought; we are closer than we realize, we are not all that unalike, what we say does matter, and it doesn't make a difference to me if you're 5 miles or 5,141.16 miles away - we look upon the same moon in the sky every night.

23) All things bright and beautiful 
While the earth is minuscule, the universe is infinite. I subscribe to no one particular religion, but I do believe in A Force Bigger than Myself. I've heard some really imaginative ideas on what lies beyond and I think there is value to all of them. I have come to a sense of peace and humility when it comes to those topics, though, and it's enough for me to just acknowledge the awesomeness of the Universe itself. I think to know what's really "out there" is to cease to exist; what would the point to life be if I possessed all of the answers? 

24) Know the value of money
Money is something I try to keep at arms length in terms of value. I guilt myself for not saving better, for purchasing something I want over scrimping and pinching. It's just money. I may not have much of it, I may want more of it, but it's merely a tool and ought to be thought as such.

25) I am too old for this shit
I am not too old to wear skinny jeans; I am not too old to adorn polka dots; and I am not too old to chase after an ice cream truck. However, when I say I Am Too Old for this Shit - my blanket statement for when I am disinterested in some activity or another - I mean it.

26) All Creatures Great and Small
It is our job to be the caregivers of all creatures great and small on this earth and I am wary of people who refuse to go beyond their own self-interest.

27) Health > Everything Else
There are precious few things worth risking my health for and piddly nonsense is not among them. I know the value of my life and it ain't for trifling with.

28) The Grand Scheme of Things
Whenever I get caught up in trivial bullshit I have to force myself to step back and ask myself, Is this vital in The Grand Scheme of Things? Sure, it may be "the little things" that matter most but sometimes piddly nonsense is just piddly nonsense.

29) Recycling for the Soul
I feel physically, emotionally and psychologically lighter after cleaning house and clearing out items that need to be donated and go on to a new phase of use. Anytime I am feeling weighed down in my life and I feel a change needs to happen, I start with my living space. It's like a cleanse for the soul.

30) Life is only as hard as I make it
I don't mean to trivialize the aspects of my life that are out of my control; that's neither here nor there. Life is difficult enough to plow through when it presents challenges I must overcome, so there is no point in making myself more complex than needed. People are not as complicated as they make themselves out to be. I'd rather be simple and congenial than falsely complicated for the sake of being interesting.

So there you have it - not all of the lessons I have learned from life thus far, but a decent amount. I think the immortal Jim Henson said it best:

"Please watch out for each other and love and forgive everybody. It's a good life, enjoy it."


  1. Um, I have a little tear in my eye! Fabulous as always, Rachael (and yet another post that makes me question whether we're not secretly twins-that-weren't-born-at-the-same-time-or-to-the-same-families-but-twins-nonetheless!) LOVE the Jim Henson quote, he - and his wonderful creations - are a constant source of suprising depth and joy. Great lessons, all! Thanks for sharing!

  2. One last one from Auntie Lisa: Do not let your circumstances dictate your attitude!