On December 1, 2015, I realized that I would be celebrating my golden birthday that year, which meant that I would turn 30 on the 30th of December. Thirty wasn’t a birthday I looked forward to reaching, but as the day got closer, it made me feel braver to look back on my years and remember what I’d learned.
I’ll be honest, with Christmas and moving to a new apartment and hosting houseguests, there hasn’t been a lot of time to think about my 32 birthday on Saturday. But to celebrate, I thought I’d pull out those 30 lessons and add 2 more to the list.
You’ll notice that many of these lessons I learned from the people in my life. I’m thankful that in my 32 years I’ve been surrounded by so many wise, inspiring people. Thank you for inspiring me to be a better person.
Here’s my list of 32 things I’ve learned and am still slowly learning each day.
#1. Courage is simply showing up, perhaps fearfully, hesitantly, or even unwillingly, but showing up to do the right thing and learning along the way the joy of doing it.
#2. Regret is an emotion to embrace. People who regret nothing are unable to see and correct the errors of their ways.
#3. “You do it. You just do it.” My mom told me this several years ago, and I’ve never forgotten it. Duty will take you farther than desire, allowing you to complete a task or accept a responsibility that isn’t pleasant. Duty is just a more austere form of love.
#4. Be willing to be found by adventure. I’ve rarely found adventure when I was looking for it—but it has surely found me, usually when I was doing something I didn’t even want to be doing. Go beyond your comfort zone, try new things, and embrace detours. Take it from me: it’s a little embarrassing to have a good time when you had planned to be miserable.
#5. “Let it go with the night.” Laura told me this one time when I was upset over something right before bed. I often wake up in the mornings thinking about the problem that I fell asleep thinking about the night before. But lately I’ve been reminded of that Anne Shirley quote, “Isn’t it nice to think that tomorrow is a new day with no mistakes in it yet?” God’s mercies are new every morning, offering a clean slate and fresh start. We might as well give ourselves the same courtesy.
#6. Growing up isn’t just about learning—it’s about unlearning harmful things you’ve learned along the way and relearning good things you’ve forgotten.
#7. Marriage isn’t a measurement of worth, and there are far worse things than being single.
#8. Kindness has power. It’s a lie of the world that violence and anger are strength. The truth is that violence and anger are simply easy. Kindness is not an easy flame to light, but it shines bright and cuts through any darkness. In the film Doubt, Philip Seymour Hoffman said, “There are people who go after your humanity,. . . that tell you that the light in your heart is a weakness. Don’t believe it. It’s an old tactic of cruel people to kill kindness.”
#9. Listen to the right people. We’re bombarded by so many messages, some direct and some indirect. Facebook, phone calls, emails, advertisements, passing strangers, family, acquaintances, close friends, and even ourselves. Some messages can be discouraging, demeaning, and downright mean. But when we listen closely, there are other messages coming through of kindness, affirmation, and truth. And those are the people we need to listen to.
# 10. “No man is a failure who has friends.” Because let’s face it: true friendship is one of the hardest things to obtain and especially to maintain. If you have a friend, it means you’ve worked hard to achieve the friendship. Other times it means that you’ve got patient friends who have worked hard to be your friend even if you haven’t put in the effort. Either way, friendship is about the most rewarding thing on earth.
#11. Retail workers are people too. Some of them are trying very hard to give you the best shopping experience of your life. Also, just because someone can’t make change on the spot doesn’t mean that they are stupid—it means that they can’t do math fast in their head.
#12. Never choose your chocolate in the dark. Back when I was teaching, one day right before class, I slipped into the faculty workroom without turning on the light, and I selected one of the chocolates from the Whitman sampler that some kind soul had brought to share with the English department. Unfortunately, when I bit into it, it was filled with that nasty caramel-flavored putty. Always remember, when you’re faced with one of those samplers, turn on the light, check the box, be sure you’re right, then go ahead. Make of what you will of this metaphor.
#13. Work brings us purpose. “We should be living for Monday instead of Friday.” When a Sunday school teacher said this a few years ago, it stuck with me. It goes against our culture to embrace work rather than play. But over the years, I’ve come to understand that Monday through Friday is where we can often find the most purpose in our offices or stores or whatever venue we find our employment. Julianne Moore said, “A happy person is a person with work and love.” And I agree. I’m thankful that I’ve learned the value of work and the joy that comes from a completed checklist, a finished project, and a job well done.
#14. Do your best. It’s all you can do, and it’s always enough.
#15. “Let go, but don’t give up.” My friend Rachel told me this once, and I’ve never forgotten it. It’s very difficult to watch people we love making mistakes harmful to themselves and others. The stress of worrying about them, the frustration of dealing with them, the feelings of being hurt by them can be draining. Sometimes you just have to let them go their own way, but never give up hoping they’ll make right choices, keep promises, and turn around.
#16. “Someone has to be conflicted about the answers.” My friend Carmen told me this. Dogma doesn’t come easy to me despite the dogmatic environments I’ve lived in most of my life. I’m conflicted about the easy answers to complex issues I hear in the world, from both sides of the issues. It’s important to have people to the right and the left—but also ones in the middle. Sometimes it means they lack backbone or standards. But sometimes, it just means they need more time to think.
#17. Knowledge—especially knowledge of truth—brings freedom. I don’t consider myself an intelligent person. I’ve often told Laura how inept I feel. This summer, she told me, “The reason you feel unintelligent is that you are always learning things that you don’t know.” And it made sense. People who don’t enjoy learning typically already think they know everything; people who are constantly learning always feel a bit inept because they know how much more they have to learn. The more you learn the more you are free from ignorance and lies. Free to make informed decisions; free to carry on conversations confidently; free to reason logically; free to think; free to remain calm in the face of ignorance. It’s a great lie that young people believe that school or learning is pointless. It’s a lie I certainly believed until I went to college—maybe even until after I graduated. But I’m glad the lesson found me. Just one more thing I’ve learned.
#18. Discipline your mind to believe what you don’t feel.
#19. The world needs all kinds of people. When we were first becoming friends, I asked Laura, “Where would we be if Lucille Ball had been jealous of Audrey Hepburn?” Can you imagine a world in which the hilarity of Lucille Ball existed but not the grace and cuteness of Audrey Hepburn? If one had tried to be the other, pop culture just wouldn’t be the same—both women were different but beloved. It’s so easy—especially as an introvert melancholy without a whole lot of flash or bang to get people’s attention—to think less of myself for not being more extroverted and peppy. But it takes all kinds of people, and everyone has his own role in making the world a better place.
#20. The more you read, the faster you read. Reading comprehension is a skill that you get better at the more you practice it. (Read more about that in my blog post “Learning to Read Again.”)
#21. It’s okay to take a break, even when there’s more work to do. Back when I worked at Barnes and Nobel, one day the lines were so long that I felt bad even taking a 30-minute lunch break. I told this to one of my coworkers who was also on break in the workroom. “I’ve been working retail for almost 20 years,” she said. “And the way I see it, people in history died so that you can take a 30 minute lunch break. So take the break.” I guess that’s sound advice for many aspects of life. Just take the break.
#22. Sadness and joy are connected. To know joy you must have known some sort of sadness or else joy is just a status quo state of being. It’s rare that any experience is entirely joyful.
#23. A quantity of presents will never take the place of quality relationships. At Barnes and Noble, I scanned thousands of dollars worth of, quite frankly, crap every single day. I saw people making impulse purchases. Plastic toys. Cheap stocking stuffers. Goofy gift books. Trying some way to make their quantity of presents represent the quality spirit of Christmas. The older I get, the more I want fewer presents—even no presents. But more quality time, silent nights sitting by the Christmas tree, playing games with my family, a road trip to the mountains. I’m thankful for things I can unwrap; but I’m more thankful for the gifts of time and love that I’ll never forget.
#24. Those who love us best encourage us to be ourselves—who we need to be and who we want to be. God has given each of us our passions, our desires, our traits. There will always be people who reject us or discourage us from enjoying or fulfilling those passions. But I think it’s important to surround ourselves with people who will encourage us to be who we need to be—and who we want to be.
#25. It’s much more fun to give than to receive. Some people think that the magic of Christmas dissipates when we grow up. But I believe it has only just begun as we shift from being the receivers to the givers of gifts.
#26. The trip is always shorter when you know the way. Ever noticed that the way back from a place always seems shorter than the way there? A familiar road is shorter than a new street. Sometimes the way to destinations like humility, love, patience, self-discipline, and faith seem to be long. But once we’ve visited those places in our hearts and minds, the way back to them seems shorter each time we need to visit again. I think the goal is to finally just think of those destinations as home.
#27. Practicality is every bit as appealing as the extravagant. This Christmas, two of my favorite gifts were an electric toothbrush and a vacuum cleaner. Becoming more practical the older I get doesn’t mean I’m getting more boring—it just means that I’m learning what’s really important.
#28. Sometimes you sweat in December and shiver in August: our seasons of life are what we make of them. So many people are going through seasons of their lives that don’t feel like the right seasons. We are conditioned to believe that youth will be free from burdens, that old age will be a time to relax. Instead we have children burdened with the failures of their parents and middle age and older people burdened with aging parents or raising their grandchildren. We have preconceptions of our seasons of life, but sometimes the snow doesn’t fall, the trees don’t bloom, the sun doesn’t shine like we expect. It is expectations that get us in trouble instead of accepting the seasons as they come and enduring or enjoying them. As the wise wizard Gandalf said, “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”
#29. Do the thing that scares you. I decided years ago that I would face my fears, consciously taking steps to do things that scared me. I don’t always follow through, but when I do, I always feel braver, feel better.
#30. There are so many things in this world that you can’t change. Just change the things you can and let the rest go.
#31. Failure isn’t the end—it’s just the beginning of a new start.
#32. You are responsible only for your own responses. We could sit around fuming over the way someone treated us, some offensive thing they said or obnoxious way they acted. But the truth is, we can only control our own responses to those circumstances. And that in itself is a full time job.
What are some life lessons that the years have taught you?