Turning fifty has me in a reflective mood. In celebration of my birthday month, I’ve been rereading old journals and making note of the ways I’ve grown and developed over time. In this thoughtful state, I’ve put together a list of things I wish I’d known when I was 25. Half a life ago, I was a young mom, with a five-year-old, a two-and-a-half-year-old, and a new born. We’d very recently had a life changing event, when our 2-year-old fractured his skull and had to be flown to the nearest Trauma Center. Life was about to get even more scary, and the tumultuous time ahead was already the thing I feared most. Before my 26th birthday, Keith would get hurt at work, we’d lose our financial footing, and spiral down into a darkness that I feared we would never find our way out of.
We did, however, find our way forward. The events that felt like the end, opened a path to a new beginning. Keith never completely recovered from that injury, but as always, he figured out how to keep going. We forged a new path where Keith was able to work in a field he loved, and I learned how to be independent and whole. But on my 25th birthday, none of that had happened yet. If I could whisper words of encouragement into my younger ear, they would be these lessons learned in the school of hard knocks.
Life is hard for everyone– At twenty-five, I felt like I was a failure at life. I now know I was battling post-partum depression and completely overwhelmed by a house full of small children. I was isolated and alone. I truly believed that I was the only one who struggled with life, with kids, with isolation and loneliness. I thought there was something terribly wrong with me. I couldn’t even remember the younger version of myself.
What I know now is that everyone struggles. Transitions are hard. All. The. Time. The lives I imagined the people around me living were fantasies made up in my head. I wasn’t struggling because I was new to New England, or because I was the “chunky” one, or because I was a terrible mom. I was struggling because LIFE IS HARD. No one gets through unscathed. The realities of living in this world mean that we all get roughed up in the process.
I wish I could wrap that younger woman up in a warm hug, pour her a cup of tea and let her know that she is not alone. I would sit and listen as she poured out her heart, I would ask questions, and affirm her feelings. Yes, life is hard. Yes, none of this feels like you thought it would. Yes, you are a good mom. Yes, you are enough.
No one is thinking about you as much as you are– One of the ways I tortured myself in my younger years (and sometimes today) is to worry about what everyone thought of me. I would walk into a room looking for affirmation and encouragement. Almost always looking for permission to be there. My interactions with others often left me wracked by self-doubt, questioning every interaction, every word. I was trying so hard to appear to be “normal” and I often left social situations feeling as though I had spoiled my cover.
What I know now is that people are rarely thinking about me. Most of the time, they are focused on their own insecurities and interactions. Where I would go home and replay every word of a conversation, noting nuance and inflection. They went home and took a nap. The people who love me, sift my words and interactions with the bonds of love and friendship built over time. Those who don’t, really don’t matter.
It took many years for me to learn that what other people think of me, is not any of my business. To limit the obsession and curtail the rehearsal of action and response. I’m not perfect at it, but I at least know its value. I would encourage my younger self to consider the truth of this statement and challenge her to focus instead on what she thinks about those other people. I spent so much time trying to make people like me, that I forgot to pay attention to whether I even liked them.
Criticism is like a cancer- At twenty-five, I had a critical heart. I measured everyone in my life by the standard I was flailing to try to reach. Perfection. I knew exactly who I wanted to be and although I was not in any way measuring up, I used that yard stick on those around me. I was critical of others parenting, of others life style, of others relationships, and of others ways of being. I walked through the world finding everyone lacking. I wore criticism like a robe, covering my brokenness and keeping people at bay.
The arrogance and judgement I poured out, had an even more devastating impact on my own heart. If I was walking through life looking for everyone’s flaws, then it was impossible for me to believe others were not doing the same. This world view, then fueled my own fear and isolation because I knew what I was thinking and could not imagine that others weren’t leveling their own criticism at me.
What I know now is my criticism became a cancer that ate away at friendships, my relationships, and my own confidence. Criticism is corrosive. It undermines things. Mostly the person holding it. As I let go (read had my goal of perfectionism ripped from my white knuckled fists through failure). I learned that most people are doing the best they can, and the reality is everyone is walking their own path. This is not a competition, rather a long winding journey. People walk it as they can. Along the way, I found that offering encouragement and grace to others refreshed my own heart and strengthened me for the journey.
Failing helps- Before we faced humiliating failure, we feared it. We made decisions based on fear and were held back by the smallness of our own anxieties. I was afraid to move because I was afraid to fail. The fear of failure kept me small and bound to things that didn’t serve me well. Over time, I learned that the bottom is solid and a good place to begin again.
Catastrophic failure, the kind where everyone knows your weakness and lack has a cleansing heat. I once called a trusted mentor and poured out my frustration at the spiraling lack of control in our lives, and he responded with such wisdom. He said, “You sound like someone who thinks she can do something about all this.” The truth was, I couldn’t. Life would shift in ways we could not control and we would simply have to walk the path in front of us.
Some days, even now, my ears will get hot with shame as I think about some of the places we’ve seen. The humiliation of hardship and the complete powerlessness. We had to shift our focus, from controlling our circumstances, to simply controlling our response to our circumstances. I had to make the choice to keep going, to learn and grow, to help failure make me better, not bitter.
Family goes the distance- At twenty-five, I wasn’t very focused on my family. We were half a world away from my folks and Keith’s’ family didn’t require much from us. I envisioned a world where I would make friendships that would fill in the spaces. I didn’t prioritize time or attention on my sister and parents. I took for granted these relationships and often neglected them all together.
And yet, the relationships in my family remain the most valuable over time. The older I get, the more I appreciate the people who have been there all along. These are the folks who will drop their lives to come when needed. These are the folks whose history and longevity cannot be replaced. It wasn’t until later that I learned that cultivating these relationships would bring an abundant harvest, at 25 I just imagined they would always be there.
Now, I know that these relationships, like all relationships, take time and attention, grace and patience, and always ongoing intentional tending. None of the family relationships in my life are a given, they have been nurtured and cherished over time. I am reaping a harvest that has been growing for decades but is only there because we chose to make it a priority.
Friendships make life better- I’ve had a lot of friends over the years. Good friends, who encouraged and supported me, who challenged and comforted me. These friends poured life and time and energy into me and my young family and I will forever be grateful for that. I have been so blessed by friends who have come along side our lives and walked with us for a season or many.
At twenty-five, I was just learning the art of friendship. In the next few years, a cherished friendship would come to an end and I would barely make it through. I clung to friends, as a vine clings to a wall, thinking they would help me be who I am. In truth, I couldn’t really be a good friend until I learned to stand on my own.
If I could offer my younger self some words of wisdom it would be to let friendships come and go as they do. I would encourage her to choose well, the people she allows into her inner circle. True friendship neither smothers or clings but gives room for growth and change.
Faith tiptoes forward- My faith was new and shiny when I was twenty-five. I had come to faith in a flurry of emotion and spiritual hunger. I jumped into the fray of church life in every way possible and focused my life on the One who loves me completely. My new faith had not yet been worn by time and testing. At twenty-five I was hoping to make bold steps forward for God.
Over time, I would learn that simple truths aren’t easy. Humility (or humiliation) would teach me that I didn’t have all the answers. Patience would have its long grinding way with me. I would learn to open my life to others, and recognize the honor of being invited in to the holy circle of pain and loss, joy and wonder in the lives of others. I would walk the path of suffering and scorn. Eventually, I would learn that knowing more didn’t matter if I didn’t love more.
Those timid first steps of faith, the learning, the growing, the infinitesimal hope, the moments of overcoming fear, and the joy of being known are the things that made all the rest of the growth in my life possible. I look back with tender love at the woman I was. She hoped for a future for her family, for herself. She wanted to make a difference in her world. She wanted to offer her heart, her life to God as a gift of love. It wasn’t a grand explosion, it wasn’t a miraculous intervention, it was the time worn path of prayer, fellowship, obedience, and love that had its way in her life. She was on just the right path. If I could, I’d lean in close and whisper, “Everything is going to be okay.”