Today is my son’s twenty-fifth birthday. It’s a bit hard to believe. Tomorrow I will turn forty-six. Twenty-five years. A lot of living happens in twenty-five years. But then again, a lot of living happens in every moment. It seemed to me that perhaps this was a good time to impart some thoughts to my son about what I have learned in the last twenty-five years. Here are the four greatest lessons that I have learned in a letter to my son.
There are a great many things that you will hear people expound upon about life. You can find millions of inspirational quotes about success, living, love, failure, loss, grief, challenges, spirituality, compassion, and the list goes on to inspire you. Most of those will come from the ruminations of famous people; actors, politicians, religious leaders, authors, athletes, and wealthy business people. To be sure, there is a great deal to learn from individuals who have achieved some degree of career success, monetary wealth, or notoriety. In my experience, there are invaluable lessons to learn from every person that you cross paths with. The clerk at Target, the barista at Starbucks, your auto mechanic, teachers, and the guy who delivers your pizza have every bit as much wisdom about life and loving as any self-help guru you will find. It might not be as eloquently stated, and the lessons may differ, but believe me; they have as much to offer you as any “personality” out there. Success as it is defined by our culture is not always the best barometer for individuals to use as a guide. Inspiration can be found in the simplest things, and in what at the time might seem to be a trivial conversation. Lesson one: nothing in life and no person you meet is trivial.
I turned twenty-one the day after you were born. In many ways, I was not much more than a child myself. Unexpectedly becoming a mother at a young age was the first dramatic turn that my life took. In life, we make choices. When I discovered that I was pregnant there were choices to make. At least, that’s what people told me. Sometimes choices are clear. For me, the only choice was to have you and to make the best attempt at marriage that I could. I’d always imagined that I would have a family. It might not have been timed perfectly, and it may not have been with the person who held my heart completely, nevertheless the choice was clear to me. Choices are not always that obvious in life. Sometimes there is no right or wrong, good or bad choice. Many times, the choices before you will be many, and none will stand out dramatically as best, better, or NO WAY WOULD I EVER DO THAT; there is only a choice to make. In those instances, you have to make the decision that calls to you the most at that time. Sometimes it leads you in unexpected directions. Often, it does not work out as you would have hoped. Perhaps your choice of school, your choice of job, or even your choice of relationship leads you astray or alone; it happens. Occasionally, a decision will lead you somewhere beyond your wildest imagining. One tiny step opens your life to infinite possibilities. You find yourself in your dream job, or you meet the love of your life; that happens too. What matters is not where we are led, but what we learn from the journey we take getting there. Nothing in life is permanent. It is ever-changing. Our lives change with each and every choice we make. Don’t be afraid to take chances when you are confronted by choice. There is a difference between recklessness and risk. Risk is essential for growth. Recklessness is fool-hearty. There is no gain without risk, and just as importantly, there is no growth without falling down. Lesson two: risk is a necessary part of life. There are no failures when we fall, only lessons to serve us if we allow that to happen.
People come and go in life. One of the most difficult parts of living to comprehend is pain and loss. We feel grief and loss in life only because we are able to feel love. Some call that yin and yang. It is the duality that rules our lives. That is what I have come to believe. Duality begins at moment one of our existence. We are guaranteed only two things on the day of our birth, that we have been granted life and that we will confront death. Everything that happens in between is sculpted by the choices that we make, and the choices of others. Duality will challenge you.
What is our duality? We are given the ability to love. We are also given the capacity to hate. We are given the gift of empathy and we are also given a proclivity towards judgment. And, we are given an inclination toward arrogance even as we are taught to be humble. Again, life is impacted by choice. This is where lesson one and two come into play. Remember when you are confronted by any choice that no one and no experience is trivial. All people matter. People are beautiful, fragile creatures. Each person has something to teach you, just as each experience you engage in will leave an impact on your life. Likewise, your actions will impact the lives of everyone you meet in some way.
You will be tested in life. People will hurt you at times. Experiences will leave you questioning and uncertain. In those moments we are presented with the choice that our dual nature provides. How will we act or react? Will it be with compassion and empathy or with hatred and judgment? Every person slips. You cannot control the actions of others. You can affect the lives of others and you will with every choice you make. We are all imperfect. That means you too. Remember that people matter. People are motivated by their feelings. Sometimes in their pursuit of love and acceptance they behave selfishly.
Sometimes, after we suffer through some loss; we want to close off to love to avoid pain. It’s a normal reaction for you to want to protect yourself. You cannot avoid loss by avoiding love. You only leave yourself empty and longing if you try. It’s a different type of pain. Loneliness equates to unneeded suffering. You will have many different types of relationships in life, and in every one there will be disappointment to some degree. People are fallible. Some relationships will last a lifetime and some will last only a moment. Either way, each matters. When you feel loss, remember that grief stems from love. No experience is permanent. Each leads you to another. The impression that you make, however is indelible; everlasting. When you touch another person’s life do it as best you can with love, empathy, and humility.
The only permanence in our existence is the impressions we make on the souls we touch. Experiences are temporary, impressions are permanent. Lesson three: live from a place of love even when you are tempted to hate. Act from a place of empathy even when you are inclined to judge. Immerse yourself in humility even when you desire to revel in arrogance. If you choose the latter, hate, judgment, and arrogance; you will miss the gifts that life is meant to provide and the lessons that will serve you. If you choose to act with empathy, love, and humility you will find that your life blossoms into an array of color. Think about it like a garden. The flowers and plants die every winter. If you become angry and vengeful and ignore the soil when spring appears, the flowers will become tangled in the twisted roots allowed to take hold below the surface and the flowers’ growth will be choked. If you tend the soil, and pull up the roots that do not serve you, pour water (love) into your garden, the flowers will reappear when the sun becomes warm again. That is the difference between a life rooted in hatred and arrogance and a life served by empathy and humility.
The final lesson is forgiveness. Forgiveness is a touchy subject for most people. People have come to equate the idea of forgiveness with an idea that to forgive is to condone. Forgiveness is the only way that we can cleanse our soul. It is not about relieving the person who has committed a transgression of their responsibility; rather it is about relieving the burden that we continue to carry from the experience. Forgiveness is the ultimate lesson that is born of the first three. Understanding that first, there is no person who is, and no experience that is insignificant in life is imperative in allowing us to make the best choices we can. Accepting and embracing the knowledge that risk is necessary in order to gain anything in life acts as a reminder of our resilience and our need for growth. Learning to acknowledge the duality of our nature as human beings as well as our fragility informs how we make the choices we will confront in life. The greatest choice we have to make is forgiveness. Do we forgive those who disappoint and harm us? Do we; can we; forgive ourselves the disappointments we have in our individual shortcomings? Can we forgive ourselves for the times we have caused injury to another? Forgiveness is the only pathway to gratefulness. And, in my experience, living a grateful life is the key to living a full life.
To live a truly grateful life is to learn to see the value in all people and in all experiences. It is to recognize that we learn and grow from loss as much as we do from triumph. It’s not easy, not any of it. Looking back over twenty-five years, I have tripped, slipped, fallen, and been pushed to the ground far more times than I have found myself soaring in the clouds. I learned something each time. People have disappointed me. People have left me, some by choice, some because of circumstance, and others through death. I’ve seen violence. I’ve seen despair. I have survived periods when I had less than twenty dollars to my name, and no idea when I would see another dollar in my pocket. I have been loved and I have been scorned. I have fallen in love and fallen out of love. I’ve cowered in fear and raged in anger. I am human. I try to forgive, but it does not always come easily. I struggle with my self-worth and I hesitate at times to take risks. It hurts me when people ridicule me or when a person I care for does not seem to reciprocate my emotion. I am human.
So, Christopher, as you look at the next twenty-five years that is the best that I can tell you. You are human and so is everyone else. When I look at my life now and I allow myself to find meaning in what I have experienced; the greatest meaning I find is not in a book that I published, a place that I traveled, or a deposit to my bank account. It’s not in the pounds that I may have lost or gained, a review or an award, or even in a possession that I own. The meaning in my life is found in YOU. It’s found in the people that have touched my soul. It was found yesterday in Danny’s exuberant embrace when I visited the bookstore. It was found in the gratefulness and affection in his eyes, and knowing that I made some small difference in his life. It is found in each heart that opened itself even the tiniest bit to invite me in; and in every heart that has entered mine.
When the finality of my dual life comes; it will not be books, trips, houses, cars, or bank accounts that I recall. It will be people, because that is where you find love. Life is meant to be lived and love is meant to be felt. So, take my observations as you will. It is my experience that if it is true that people are fragile and life is ever-changing; than love is the mortar that binds them together and makes them strong. The next twenty-five years will pass more quickly than the first. Don’t waste them in fear, judgement, or apathy. Live them actively. Love openly. Embrace people. Take risks. Work to forgive, not only others, but also yourself. And, trust me when I tell you that when you do those things you will be led to a grateful life. And, that is the only way to truly live.