I’ve been seeing a number of posts in social media lately about how everything that happens in one’s life (especially in relationships) should be seen as an opportunity to learn and grow. In other words, the posts discourage regret or sadness about past choices by suggesting that everything one has endured up to a certain point has been a teachable moment. The messages imply that if you haven’t learned something from a decision that turned out to be the wrong one that you just aren’t looking hard enough for the lesson.
Look, I’m all for learning from my mistakes and growing stronger from disappointment, but what happens if the depth of that disappointment feels like an abyss; like a hole one has fallen into by no fault of their own? But wait. We aren’t supposed to blame others for the things that happen to us, right? We always play a role. OK. So what if our fault lies in loving someone too much, seeing the potential in someone who refused to see it in themselves, or just trusting another human being to do the right thing? You see, here’s where my confusion about the lesson to be found begins. Am I supposed to learn not to love so much? Should I stop pushing to see the good in people? And how about trust? Should I be less trusting?
I know a great number of people who are jaded from relationships in which they suffered deep disappointment. For these people, the answer to most of the questions I posed above is a screaming, “Yes!” As a result of their experiences, these people do approach relationships differently than maybe they have in the past. They might stick a toe in to test the waters, maybe go knee-deep for another length of time, and maybe even make it into their waists. But they never fully submerge – and subsequently spend their lives complaining that they can’t seem to find anything real and meaningful. I guess in these cases I wonder what the value of the lesson truly is. More importantly, I wonder what part of themselves they are sacrificing as protection from future hurt and disappointment. I’m not sure the lessons are serving them well. In fact, I think what is really happening is that they are punishing themselves – and anyone else they meet – for things that happened in the past.
That which doesn’t kill us might make us stronger, but I think its ok to be broken for a while. Some things deserve to be felt, to be grieved. And that’s ok. If you’ve spent all of your energy in loving someone or something that didn’t work out, it’s probably ok to spend some energy grieving its loss. And if you can’t find a lesson in any of it, don’t let that make you feel worse. Sometimes people just don’t have the capacity to love in the same way you do. Sometimes, the lessons they think they’ve learned block them. Maybe knowing that is lesson enough.
In the end, perhaps the greatest lesson we can learn is more about ourselves than it is about any situation or person. And to that end, the most important question we can ask is whether we want to be motivated by love or motivated by fear. A seemingly simple question requires careful introspection. And living true to the answer may require courage. What will you choose? I have a feeling your answer will shape the lessons you learn.
Want to read more about fear vs. love? I found another blog that deals with this topic: https://wordfromthewell.com/2012/08/03/love-vs-fear-the-most-important-decision-youll-ever-make-and-youre-making-it-right-now/
Today is my 44th birthday. 44. That’s weird. I don’t feel like 44 years have gone past me (although I admittedly have aches and pains not seen in my 20s and I now find great joy in a Saturday night with nothing to do). But on this, my birthday, I’ve been reflecting on the past year. And through that reflection, I’ve been given a marvelous gift; that is, perspective. In the great summation of another year lived, I am able to learn about myself…and to find lessons that I hope will make me a better person in my 44th year.
I have learned that trust is a rare and delicate gift. I often give it too freely to those who haven’t earned it, or too long to those who don’t deserve it. And I know I don’t thank those who do enough.
I have learned that the heart has a tremendous capacity for joy and an equally intense ability to feel pain. Sometimes the deepest cuts are made by the same person or thing that once brought you that joy.
I have learned that the human spirit is amazingly resilient. I am grateful for those who reminded me about that.
I have learned the value of forgiveness. Grudges cause the most pain to those who hold them. Even greater relief is found in the ability to forgive oneself.
I have learned that despite good intentions and honest effort, sometimes I will just fall short. But if I learned something in the process, the time and energy was not wasted.
I have learned that you can really only love someone as much as they will allow. That said, I have learned that I can love more deeply and unselfishly than I imagined. I am grateful for those who don’t limit my love and who love me back without restriction.
I have learned that every day is an opportunity to be happy. But happiness is not something that happens to me. It is something I create. It is a mindset framed in gratitude.
I have learned that many people are happy to settle for mediocre. I’ve also learned that I am not one of those people. And I won’t apologize for that.
And so, lessons learned. Here I am at 44 … still learning. What better gift could there be?
Like many Americans, the results of last night’s election are weighing heavy on my mind. Like many, I am disturbed and disappointed. And if you are a reader of my blog, you know that this is where I often process my thoughts and ideas. I am going to make the bold assumption that you read my words because you find some value in the thoughts I share; that somehow, I inspire you to think about something in a way you maybe haven’t before. And so today, I write this blog for that reason.
I just need to share some of the things I am worried about.
I am worried because I believe that last night’s results are a reflection of this country’s unwillingness to truly embrace a woman leader. I’m not sure people even consciously know it exists. But there is an underlying and archaic prejudice that pervades our country’s values and belief systems. It is one that sets double standards and often calls women bitches when they hold positions of power and are strong leaders. It is thinking that criticizes women for many of the things for which their male counterparts are applauded, and it permeates the way girls are educated, hired, and celebrated. It is evident in white society; it is even worse for women of color. That needs to change.
I am worried because we have elected a bully. Some may admire Trump’s outspoken honesty, even arguing that his honesty, although often offensive, is refreshing. But what we saw throughout the campaign was someone who often used scare tactics, who raised his voice when he felt threatened, and who promised to exclude people who are often on the fringes of society. Now, on the day after the election, he speaks of inclusion and representing all people and their interests. It’s like the abusive husband who kisses his wife’s cheek on the day after he beat the shit out of her. That cannot be tolerated.
I am worried because we are focused on making America great again when, in reality, I don’t think we’ve come close to realizing our true greatness. While we have made strides, we are still a very long way from ensuring that all voices are heard in this country. We are even further from guaranteeing that those voices are heard with the same level of interest and validation. Am I to believe that the perception of greatness lies in a time when white men ruled the roost and women and minorities had less (or no) say? Many people have fought and died over time for the rights we have. Does making America great again imply that those rights have somehow diminished us? I don’t disagree that there are many, many great things about our country. But when we talk about “again,” I think we have to be careful about what exactly that means.
Finally, I am worried about what we will say to our children. Every day, we teach kids not to bully, to be inclusive, to think about how their words and actions impact others. What will we say now when they see all of the qualities we discourage rewarded with the highest position in our country? How will we explain that the person leading us does it not by example, but by modeling exactly how we shouldn’t act?
Someone said to me today that watching the election results come in last night was much like watching this season’s Walking Dead premier (I apologize to the readers who will not get the analogy here). In the case of the election, she said, some voters are like Negan who is swinging a bat named Trump to squash and kill those whose ideas and values are different than his own. Abraham and Glenn, she said, represent the morality and humanity that are killed in that swing. I hope that is not the case.
And so, perhaps the most important question is “Now what?”.
The “now what” is critically important. Sure, the face of politics is changed. Sure, there’s a celebrity in the White House. Sure, history has been made. But beyond that, we must all ask ourselves “now what” and decide how we will move ahead.
I remember when Obama was elected and there was a certain positive energy around the change he promised to bring to our country and to politics. I remember thinking that people saw him like some kind of savior. And now, eight years later the same people are full of criticism and disgust – to the point that they are now looking at more of a fallen angel to be our redeemer. Here’s the hard and honest truth: our salvation is up to us. No longer can we be complacent. Instead, each of us needs to embrace the democratic process and hold our politicians accountable: for their words, for their ideas, for their actions. With a president-elect, a House, and a Senate all representing the same political party majority, we can no longer blame disagreement between parties for our failure to make positive change.
The “now what” will be defined by our ability to be proactive, to advocate for rights for all people, and to hold our elected politicians accountable for representing not special interests and big money, but all of us. Our civic responsibility – and our need to be responsible to and for each other – is now greater than it has ever been. We need to be educated about the issues, we need to invest concern in each other, and we need to pressure our legislators to make decisions that truly benefit all of us.
Most importantly, when our children watch TV or log into social media, we have to make sure the messages they see reinforce for them that every one of us believes in them – all of them – and that the future of our greatness lies in the contributions they will make to our world. No matter their gender, their sexual orientation, their body type, or their color, our children must know that their ideas are respected and considered. I hope that they not only hear “United” States of America, but that when they stand and place their hands over their hearts to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, they feel united in a country that has their backs. That’s what will make America great. It is our duty to get us there.
In a difficult conversation, I recently encouraged a friend to think about the things he needs to make him happy. It seems that in the process of figuring out life, he has made some commitments to people that are contradictory and, in all reality, are pulling him in different directions. As a way to help, I encouraged this friend to stop trying to make decisions for other people. I encouraged him to think not about what makes everyone else happy, but to focus instead on what will make him happy. His response was, “I’m not trying to make anyone happy. I’m just trying not to make anyone sad.”
I’ve been thinking about this response for more than a week now. What I’ve been trying to discern is the difference between being happy and not being sad. Since they are opposites, one could argue that if you’re not sad, you are indeed happy. But in reality, not being sad doesn’t imply happiness at all. In fact, I think the span between sad and happy is broader than we ever really think about. Someplace in the middle of the spectrum is probably a feeling of contentment. But again, contentment and happy are two very different terms.
I have written many times about my desire to live a life full of joy. Lately, however, I’ve begun to think that most people rarely focus on living a life of joy. Instead, I think most people settle into a comfort zone. That space in life is comfortable because maybe it offers a steady income, someone to hang out with on a regular basis, or even a sense of belonging. It establishes a status quo that we’ve looked at, evaluated, and decided meets our basic needs. It keeps us safe – physically and emotionally. And I would argue that it rarely stretches us to evaluate our beliefs or our needs. We just settle … into routines, into habits, into people. This idea is presented without any judgment of others; I, myself, have done the same.
But what if we could refuse to settle? What if we committed ourselves to living our lives on purpose and with purpose? What if we could live a life that truly made us happy? If you could choose that, would you?
The quick response is probably, “Of course I would!” But think about the questions for a moment. Would you really? You see, I think living a life that intentionally seeks joy is challenging. It means that we have to first know ourselves – really know ourselves. We have to know what makes us tick, what motivates us, what scares us, what we really want. And then after we’ve identified all those things, we have to be willing to make choices based on the answers, despite what anyone else thinks.
So today I am thinking about whether my life makes me happy. Because if it’s the case that I’m just not sad, I deserve better. And so do you.
It occurred to me today that we’re all at least just a little bit broken. Life circumstance, experience, or nurturing cause us to have parts that we hide from others. Every day we get up, put our best faces on, and go out to take on the world. But underneath the surface is always some nagging thing that tells our whole story. More often than not, it is those things – the things we don’t often speak of – that shape how we approach work, relationships, and even opportunities for ourselves.
I was recently watching an episode of the Showtime series Billions (which I could go on and on about – such a smart show). The billionaire says to his therapist, “People withhold crucial information all the time. We learn to manage our expectations about those closest to us, don’t we? So they don’t turn into mistrust or paranoia.”
Is that true? Do our closest relationships rely on how well we manage our expectations of others?
I think it is fair to say that every relationship comes with expectations. What’s an interesting think-about, however, is how those expectations get developed and agreed upon. For example, I think it is the rare couple who actually sits and outlines expectations when a relationship is in a healthy place. Instead, conversations about expectations usually happen when one person hurts another – intentionally or not. It is in those moments of hurt that someone says, “I just expected more.”
Why is it that we so often talk about setting expectations at work, but rarely talk about them in a relationship? Maybe in love we just take some things for granted because they are the socially acceptable doctrines we think we need to believe and accept. Things like monogamy, honesty, reliability, and loyalty are just sort of assumed expectations in a relationship. But should they be? The answer, I think, depends on the needs of the people in the actual relationship.
My point here isn’t to debate what kinds of qualities each partner must bring to a relationship. Rather, it is to suggest that every relationship is different; and the needs of people are wide and varied. I have been on the receiving end of the statement, “Your expectations are just too high” on more than one occasion. And in those circumstances, maybe my expectations were too high for the other person to meet. I think we get so wrapped up in trying to be everything to everyone that we rarely stop to actually think about or verbalize what we need from someone else. Most dangerously, we impose the golden rule of “do unto others” in many situations where the other person’s needs are dramatically different from our own. Never would I suggest that a person compromise the things that are truly important to them for the sake of a relationship. Instead, what I often wonder is if a failed relationship would have stood a better chance if a conversation happened long before the let-down did.
I was watching a TV hospital drama the other night. One of the patients came into the emergency room after being hit by a car. He said that he was texting and walked right into the street without even noticing the car that subsequently struck him. Luckily, the man sustained only minor injuries to his lower leg. But over the course of treatment, the head of psychiatry noticed the man’s underlying depression. He asked the man if he stepped intentionally in front of the car. After some prodding, the man admitted that he had. He said, “I have the perfect life, the perfect marriage, the perfect job. I have nothing to be sad about. And yet, I am sad all the time. Nothing makes me happy.”
I continue to think about this episode because it made me wonder how many of us are silently struggling with fears and insecurities and doubts that we do not discuss. How does our notion of “perfect” put pressure on us? Moreover, how does what others call perfect guilt us into thinking that we should be happy and make us feel inadequate when we are not? Are we even able to define happiness for ourselves anymore? And most importantly, do we think we deserve to be happy?
I believe that there are very few people in the world who live a joyous life. Maybe I’m wrong. But my opinion is that people settle, and in that settlement they find comfort. Comfort and joy, however, are two very different things. One can live a comfortable life – and become comfortably numb in the process – without ever knowing joy. I would argue, however, that the greatest life is one that is both comfortable and joyous. And joy comes from living life as your authentic self.
Many years ago, I read a book by Dr. Phil called “Self Matters.” In that book, Dr. Phil defines the authentic self as “who you were created to be.” He also refers to the fictional self, which is “who the world has told you to be.” He explains that when people are asked who they are, they often answer with a role they play or a place they come from (mom, husband, lawyer, Penn Stater, etc.). Different from these answers, however, is a deeper response to the question, “Who are you?”. He states that this deeper response is found in the authentic self; it is found at your core and is not defined by your job, function or role. “It is all of the things that are uniquely yours and need expression, rather than what you believe you are supposed to be and do.”
I think the world is really good at helping us to create our fictional selves. It is easy to listen to outside influences, pay attention to everyone else’s expectations, and fall victim to someone else’s definition of what happy looks like. It is much harder to think beyond convention and listen to our inner self. After all, what if that little voice inside of me is wrong? What if I step off the beaten path and end up lost and alone in the woods? Then what?
Last August, I posted “Walking the Path.” It was then that I wrote: “The path forward can sometimes become unclear, possibly grown over with brush, or disrupted by broken cobblestones. When this break in the path happens, it is easy for us to retreat; to turn and go back from where we came. And I guess that’s sometimes ok. The places we have already been are known to us; even when they are not exactly pleasant, we know we can survive these places because we’ve already lived in them. We know what the expectations in those places are; we know how people will treat us and what will be the norm.”
As I reread that now, I am thinking about the path in a different way. Perhaps the breaks in our path are opportunities for us to consider the life we are living; to evaluate whether or not we are honoring our authentic selves. And perhaps if the path feels broken or challenging, it is not because we are being called to retreat, but that our authentic self is pushing us forward and calling us to break from the fictional self we’ve allowed the path to create for us in the first place. We might sacrifice comfort for a short time as we grow and evolve, but the resulting joy? I bet that’s worth it.
Many are familiar with The Sound of Music. Although the music and melody of the story often mask the very serious events associated with World War II, the story raises a number of themes that transcend the time in which it was written. Perhaps the strongest of these themes is love.
One scene, in particular, has had me thinking deeply about love and relationships. Rebounding from the death of his wife and looking to find a permanent mother for his children, Captain von Trapp woos a wealthy Baroness. When it is decided that the two will marry, a song about their courtship asks (and I’m summarizing), “with such wealth, how will love ever survive?” This question implies that it is only because of struggle do people fall and stay in love. It almost suggests that relationships only last when we feel tied to another person out of need. What does this say for the self-sustaining and independent people who come to a relationship not because they need to find a partner, but because they actually want to? Is it true that an “easy” relationship grows stale over time?
Perhaps that last question is a silly one to even ask. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen or experienced a relationship that is easy all of the time. In fact, I think there’s probably a balance of how hard or easy any relationship should be. What I think the song was actually suggesting was that there need to be things a couple can share; challenges they face and address together to form a stronger bond. In the end, it wasn’t the wealth that killed the relationship of Captain von Trapp and the Baroness. In fact, that was the only thing they really had in common. Instead, it was that the Captain was a loyal Austrian, while the Baroness was willing to compromise her loyalty to Austria when nationalism became a threat. She became Berlin to a man whose deepest love was for his home country of Austria.
What things do we compromise in a relationship? Are there pieces of ourselves that we willingly give up to be with another person? Or, are there things rooted so deeply in us that we wouldn’t sacrifice them for anyone’s love? Do we even know what those things are?
I pose these questions as a think about. In the process of falling in love, it is often so very easy to forget who we are. As emotions surge and the endorphins associated with new love mask all our other senses, it is important that we know what our “Austrias” are. These are the things we should never compromise. When shared, they will be the things that get two people through any struggle together. After all, there is no such thing as perfect. And what keeps us together is not the struggle. Rather it is the way we approach the struggle knowing that another person has our back – not because they need to, but simply because they want to be there.