Without a doubt, 2016 tried to kill me. On December 31, my match was lit and ready to set that calendar on fire. I vaguely discussed some of the challenges of that year in this post last January, expecting (OOPS! – see #5 below) that 2017 would be the BEST. YEAR. EVER. I thought everything would fall into place last year. I thought things would change and the world would start to make sense again. Plus, I totally deserved to win the lottery or something after keeping my head above water during the year that nearly drowned me. And life usually gives us exactly what we deserve, right? (Bwahahahaha! I may have just laughed so hard that Diet Coke came out my nose . . . )
In reality, what life often gives us feels a little more like this . . .
Truth be told, the past year was better in a whole lot of ways, and I wrote about a few of the highlights on the blog throughout 2017. But I’m still in the midst of a difficult divorce, and I just learned that the school where I’m working must close, so this post would be a big fat lie if I did not say this: I didn’t win the lottery in 2017. And my joy, as refreshing as it was to rediscover it, was often still entangled in a web of uncertainty, disappointment, and hurt. It turns out that flipping a page on a calendar (or burning the whole thing to ashes . . . ) doesn’t really fix everything, at least not instantly. But one thing is for sure: I’m supposed to learn something from these experiences. The years that tried to kill me have taught me that there is beauty in the tremendous growth and wisdom we gain when wrestling with unexpected challenges. Here are a few more lessons I’ve learned from my WWE match with life. (By the way, I think I may be winning . . .)
1. Stop apologizing already and use your village.
Humans were designed to live in communities, both physical communities and social ones. Individually, we are unable to compensate for our own weaknesses, but together the gaps created by one person can be filled by another until there are no gaps left in the community at all. That’s a beautiful thought, right? And you aren’t weak because you have a need. You’re just human.
But human nature also makes us act a bit like toddlers, little kids who want to do everything independently, even when they aren’t really capable. They want to pour the gallon of milk that they can hardly lift off the table. They want to tie their shoes before anyone has taught them how. They want to swing the bat their way and dunk the ball in the hoop despite being only two feet tall. For the grownups, it’s maddening.
We cringe at that behavior, but think about the crazy things we do just to prove that we can do them. We consider it an accomplishment to handle everything on our own. We drive ourselves to the emergency room when we are practically dying. We try to manage impossible schedules without asking another parent who is going to the exact same place to give our kid a ride. We agree to things that we don’t want to do so that we won’t look incapable of juggling one hundred and fifty seven responsibilities at once. Seriously, it’s ridiculous.
If you are lucky enough to have handled everything on your own until now, you win a . . . well, nothing actually . . . but, really, that’s pretty amazing. Still, I will advise from experience that you should start building your village today because everyone gets caught in a storm with no umbrella eventually. (Or wakes up seriously sick with a kidney stone in the middle of the night . . . We all have our own issues . . .)
2. Don’t just sit there and expect people to build a village around you.
I once read a string of comments on the Today Parenting Blog in which some moms lamented that neighbors aren’t thoughtful anymore and that people with a caring village are just lucky and that no one ever helps them when they need it. Now, maybe these ladies live in towns where everyone looks a bit like the Grinch and no one shares a casserole anymore, but I find that a little hard to believe.
I find that a lot hard to believe, actually.
Remember the famous line from Field of Dreams? The voice that Ray hears over and over as he envisions his own baseball diamond says, “If you build it, he will come . . .” So he builds it, and people come. Even ghosts come, for goodness sake. Most of us aren’t interested in attracting dead baseball players, but the advice is solid: The magic is secondary. First, you have to do the hard work.
If you don’t have a village, start by envisioning the community you want to create. What kind of friend are you wishing to have in your life? Then – and this is the secret that the ladies I mentioned above may have missed – YOU HAVE TO BE THAT FRIEND. You have to make the first move. You have to start the conversations. You have to help the mom who looks frazzled. You have to notice the stressed out woman and buy her a coffee. You have to invite the neighbors over for dessert. You have to show up when it is totally inconvenient. You have to send a card to someone who needs a lift. YOU have to lay the foundation for the village that you want to live in.
If you build a baseball diamond, baseball players will find it. (Maybe not ghost ones, but ghosts are creepy anyway.) And if you build a village that starts with you being the kind of friend that you want to have, then you will attract the kinds of friends you are looking for, too.
3. You can survive more than you think you can.
You know all those people who have overcome huge challenges only to move forward and contribute to the world in positive ways? You read about them or see them on television, and their optimism and fighting spirit seem superhuman. Their stories are uplifting and really do motivate us to be better and stronger and more hopeful than we were before.
But at the end of the day, they’re people, not superheroes, people like you who are just trying to make something good out of an otherwise crappy situation. Hopefully, you would do the same thing, too, if you were faced with a similar adversity. And although your resilience would inspire others in really wonderful ways, you probably wouldn’t feel all that inspirational – because moving forward after a crisis really just feels like, well, survival. You have the strength to survive hard things, too. You are no different from those people. You have the power to thrive and to inspire others and to make something good come from your own despair.
4. It’s important to stay busy. But not too busy.
Balance may be impossible to achieve, but it’s certainly something to aim for. This is especially true when you are faced with hard times. Unfortunately, many people who encounter scary hurdles resort to extremes – either staying so busy that they never face their problems and emotions, or isolating themselves so much that they are more apt to sink into a very dark place.
As Winston Churchill famously said, “If you are going through hell, keep going.” The danger of standing still, of course, is that you will never come out on the other side. Spending time with friends and family, contributing within the community, and finding your bigger purpose can help you to feel contentment and joy. But quiet time for reflecting, reading, journaling, connecting with your faith, and talking privately with close friends is also really, really important in order to move forward. It’s okay to give yourself time to process and time to be alone, just not too much. I’m still seeking this balance. So should you.
5. Your expectations will shape your outlook.
One of the greatest barriers to finding happiness after a loss is accepting that your life no longer looks like the photo-shopped image of the future that you had already plastered in the album in your head. It can be very, very difficult to let go of the expectations you had for today and for the future so that you can appreciate the beauty of what you actually have – which is still probably pretty awesome in a lot of ways. And the longer we hang onto expectations that are no longer realistic, the more time bitterness and anger have to make themselves really cozy in our hearts.
During a run this week, I tripped on an uneven sidewalk and skinned myself up. It was totally embarrassing, and, DANG, a skinned knee hurts more than I remember! (So sorry, kids, for telling you to suck it up . . . ) While I was bandaging a few scrapes, I inadvertently knocked my phone in the water. So my kids came home to a limping mom with a bag of ice in one hand and an iphone in a bag of rice in the other. “You had a really bad day,” they said. And I probably should have felt like I’d had a horrible day, but I didn’t. (Disclaimer: I definitely can’t say that I always handle situations like this so calmly! I nearly threw my computer out the window just a few minutes ago when the wifi stopped connecting. . .) Here’s the thing. When you stop expecting life to be perfect, some of the situations that might have seemed tragic in the past lose their power. And sometimes overcoming some of the bigger problems in life brings a healthier perspective to the smaller issues and helps you to focus on the positive.
It’s important to have hopes and dreams, to work hard to achieve those, and to maintain high standards for your life, but make sure that your expectations aren’t setting you up to be an unhappy person. Accept that life isn’t perfect. That you can’t always have what you want. That people will make mistakes. That things will happen that aren’t fair. That you can’t predict the future. All of that sounds pretty bleak, right? It really isn’t. Life is full of wonderful things, as well. But these truths are, well, REAL, and we often prefer to live in the pretend rather than in the reality, which creates unnecessary disappointment. Expect problems to happen, because that is just life, but also recognize that the overall quality of your life isn’t determined by a single problem, even if that problem is a big one.
You can read Part 2 of this post here!
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