For many of us, our childhoods were pretty structured or were spent pleasing others to the point where we don’t completely know what we enjoy or what brings us pleasure. One of the joys of adulthood is laying down other’s expectations and pressures and discovering who we are deep down.
Emily says it well,
is not really how it works. You aren’t a ten-dollar bill in last winter’s coat pocket.
You are also not lost. Your true self is right there, buried under cultural conditioning, other people’s opinions, and inaccurate conclusions you drew as a kid that became your beliefs about who you are. “Finding yourself” is actually returning to yourself. An unlearning, an excavation, a remembering who you were before the world got its hands on you.
Take a minute and think about what you loved as a child before ‘the world got its hands on you’. Is there a way to return to that joy in some way today?
We’ve always done it this way. Have you heard this? Said it? Maybe it’s time to look at ‘it’ with fresh eyes.
The same is true for the way we act, think, believe. Take a look. Is there anything there that is worth a reconsideration?
As we age, it’s easy to fall into ruts, easy to believe our way is the right way, easy to assume any problems are the other person’s fault.
Self-reflection, hard, soul-deep reflection, the kind of reflection that might be filled with regret and tears and epiphanies and apologies, is a good tune-up for our inner selves. Without it, there will be no progress.
What do we regret most as we contemplate the end of our time here? Maybe the lesson from that regret can inform our present. In an outstanding commencement speech, George Saunders reflects on his own failures and encourages the graduating students to look for opportunities to be kind. He reflects on a memory haunting him from his childhood:
In seventh grade, this new kid joined our class. In the interest of confidentiality, her Convocation Speech name will be “ELLEN.” ELLEN was small, shy. She wore these blue cat’s-eye glasses that, at the time, only old ladies wore. When nervous, which was pretty much always, she had a habit of taking a strand of hair into her mouth and chewing on it.
So she came to our school and our neighborhood, and was mostly ignored, occasionally teased (“Your hair taste good?” — that sort of thing). I could see this hurt her. I still remember the way she’d look after such an insult: eyes cast down, a little gut-kicked, as if, having just been reminded of her place in things, she was trying, as much as possible, to disappear. After awhile she’d drift away, hair-strand still in her mouth. At home, I imagined, after school, her mother would say, you know: “How was your day, sweetie?” and she’d say, “Oh, fine.” And her mother would say, “Making any friends?” and she’d go, “Sure, lots.”
Sometimes I’d see her hanging around alone in her front yard, as if afraid to leave it.
And then — they moved. That was it. No tragedy, no big final hazing.
One day she was there, next day she wasn’t.
End of story.
Now, why do I regret that? Why, forty-two years later, am I still thinking about it? Relative to most of the other kids, I was actually pretty nice to her. I never said an unkind word to her. In fact, I sometimes even (mildly) defended her.
But still. It bothers me.
So here’s something I know to be true, although it’s a little corny, and I don’t quite know what to do with it:
What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness.
Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded . . . sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly.
We all have so many opportunities to make a difference, just by simply being kind, offering a smile, reaching out in friendship. And, when we reflect on the kindnesses that have made the difference to each of us in our own lives, we realize those little shows of kindness are what matter.
Saunders continues to remind each of us that our inner selves, our souls, shine as brightly as ever, and, even as we strive for success, to keep checking in with that inner place, and to believe it exists and greet the world from there:
Do all the other things, the ambitious things — travel, get rich, get famous, innovate, lead, fall in love, make and lose fortunes, swim naked in wild jungle rivers (after first having it tested for monkey poop) – but as you do, to the extent that you can, err in the direction of kindness. Do those things that incline you toward the big questions, and avoid the things that would reduce you and make you trivial. That luminous part of you that exists beyond personality — your soul, if you will — is as bright and shining as any that has ever been. Bright as Shakespeare’s, bright as Gandhi’s, bright as Mother Teresa’s. Clear away everything that keeps you separate from this secret luminous place. Believe it exists, come to know it better, nurture it, share its fruits tirelessly.
When you are confronted with a choice, err in the direction of kindness.
As we age, time feels like it is moving faster. This makes sense considering the math, perhaps. One year to a 100 year old is just one percent of their life, but to a two year old, it’s 50% more. But scientists are saying there is another reason having to do with the diversity of experiences.
“Our brain encodes new experiences, but not familiar ones, into memory, and our retrospective judgment of time is based on how many new memories we create over a certain period. In other words, the more new memories we build on a weekend getaway, the longer that trip will seem in hindsight.”
And this squares with why we felt that there was more time when we were younger when everything was new, and when our days were filled with varied experiences.
So perhaps there is a way to slow down time: fill it up, stretch your experiences, try new things, explore, savor, forswear the ordinary.
What is hope, really, but a persistent insistence that things can be better, that there is more to it, that the final answers are yet to be revealed. Emily Dickinson describes hope as
“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –
I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.”
And this feels right. Hope sits there perched, singing, warming our souls and keeping us fed. A wordless song because we may not even have the ability to put our emotions into words or know what it is we hope for. And this is a positive, persistent hope, but somewhat passive, waiting.
And yet, we know, too, that hope gets its fingernails dirty because while hope sits on the periphery expectant, it can also be in the fray fighting for a better world. That kind of hope is captured by Matthew @CrowsFault:
“People speak of hope as if it is this delicate ephemeral thing made of whispers and spider’s webs. It’s not. Hope has dirt on her face, blood on her knuckles, the grit of cobblestones in her hair, and just spat out a tooth as she rises for another go.”
And this, too, seems true. Hope keeps our souls fed but also prompts our entering the arena, helping us to do the hard work to make a better world for all.
Let 2023 be a year of hope, perched and singing to our souls, but also inching us forward to do the hard work, offering our time and talents, to bring about a better today.
Today, in the United States, we vote. We celebrate a country that allows its citizens input into this remarkable experiment of a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.
We honor this country and its principles of equality, freedom, and justice for all. Our understanding of those concepts has evolved over time, and taken some steps back, but today let us be grateful for how far we’ve come and consider the steps that we each might take today and every day to make this country move closer to the ideals for which it stands. It is both a privilege and a responsibility to vote.
If you look for thorns, you’ll see thorns. If you look for love, you’ll see it all around you. And if you look for opportunities to make a difference, to shower people with love, and to take a stand for all that is good and right in the world, those opportunities will be there.
One of the side-benefits or hardship is cultivating resilience. Learning new things and new ways of doing old things helps sharpen the saw. It also helps us stay engaged and young. In this excellent article, Kerry Hannon argues that learning something new is a key factor in building the resilience we need to weather setbacks and navigate life’s volatility, particularly now.
When you’re in the process of learning, your viewpoint changes, and you spot connections that you never noticed before. “Resilience is about being adaptable in a variety of different circumstances,” said Dorie Clark, who teaches executive education at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business and is the author of “Reinventing You.” It is a combination of being able to pick yourself up when there are setbacks, but also it is about having the kind of cross-training necessary to be flexible in an uncertain world where we don’t know what is around the corner,” Ms. Clark said.
New York Times, “To Build Emotional Strength, Expand Your Brain,” by Kerry Hannon
Staying curious, intentionally putting yourself in places and situations where you are a beginner, and following passion all contribute to building resilience with a byproduct of satisfaction.
Those who routinely and consciously engage in learning become more confident about their ability to figure things out once a crisis hits, according to Beverly Jones, an executive career coach and author of “Think Like an Entrepreneur, Act Like A CEO.” “Each time they hit a bump, they spend less time lamenting and quickly turn to determining what they must learn in order to climb out of the hole,” she said. Moreover, learners develop a more optimistic mind-set, which helps them jump into action, according to Ms. Jones. “In part, this is because each time you become aware of learning something new it feels like a victory,” Ms. Jones said. “You maintain the positivity that is a key to resilience.”
So, as we continue to adapt to a new normal, now is a good time to seek out new things to learn and new passions to pursue. More than ever, university courses and classes are being offered online, often for free. What is something new for you to pursue? Stay curious; keep your mind young; and follow your passions.
Sometimes everything comes down to how we see a situation. Will we get irritated by something or consider it an opportunity to build community? Often children with their winsome ways and guilelessness cause us to adapt. Take a moment to watch this life-affirming story about a man who took an unusual approach to a child riding a bike in his driveway. What a beautiful neighborhood they are creating together!