I turned 43 on June 22nd. But being once a student and now a teacher, as well as sharing the day with my parents’ wedding anniversary, my birthday has never really held much expectation for me. My birthdays have generally been overshadowed by bigger events or simply buried under the hustle and bustle of end-of-school-beginning-of-summer chaos.
But I do consider it a new beginning of sorts. The New Year in January is in the dead of winter and that is a tough time to start anything new. Self-improvement goals set in January in my world are doomed. But at the beginning of summer? That seems to be more favourable. What better way to the start a new year than with beautiful weather, two months of holidays and adventures lying in wait?
Every birthday, I look back at the year and I’m always amazed at how far I’ve travelled – emotionally, geographically, professionally, personally. It often feels like the year flew by and I can’t believe I am once again waving goodbye to the school buses, opening up the trailer to air it out and trying on my swimsuit to see if it still fits. We all lament how quickly the year flies by but a lot can happen in 365 days.
The year I was 42 was a year of incredible highs and some startling lows, that in turn gave me four incredible gifts.
The year started in Toronto, seeing U2 in concert – a band that has formed my love of social justice and resistance. Then I travelled to Spain and walked the Camino, a lifelong dream that turned into one of the biggest disappointments of my life. But like many major disappointments, it fueled my emotional growth. After that I volunteered at a galgo sanctuary in Málaga, which taught me the true meaning of service. After a week back in Canada, I reconnected with three friends in Winnipeg, which gave me a badly-needed emotional boost. Then the new school year started and I was faced with extraordinary challenges in my classroom that I had never faced before. A week later, Bob went in for his third and final ankle surgery. And so began four months of solitude and service to him, to the dogs and to my students. Never have I given so much of myself. Never have I gone to bed so at peace with myself. Even though I wondered if I’d make it to Christmas, it came. The new year brought new revelations. I hiked (even in winter) to recharge my soul, I renewed my library card and read to calm my mind, I started going back to the gym to nourish my body. My dad went into hospital for something like a stroke. The challenges at school grew far more complicated. I hiked some more. I became quite competent at driving a standard transmission. We went to Amsterdam for a week. And then Iceland for a long weekend. I seriously contemplated another career. At some point in the spring, I lost any last shred of hope I had in humanity. I started hand-sewing. I changed a flat tire on my bike for the first time ever. I got myself back to running 8K. We went to a travel and adventure show and I won a half-day ATV adventure tour in Madawaska. I took Abu on her first hike in the Adirondacks. It wasn’t a year of ups and downs. It was a year that started heavy and finished big.
And now here we are. One year later. See? A lot has happened. And through it all, I’ve learned four life-changing lessons. They are deeply interconnected and I don’t know if I could have learned any of them individually or have learned them in a linear fashion. These lessons are the four gifts of my 42nd year.
While walking the Camino, I met many different people, all of whom had lived extraordinary lives. I have lived in many places around the world. I have seen things many have not. But truth be told, I have had a very easy life. I have not suffered any trauma. I have not suffered more than anyone else. Many of us have lived very charmed lives but we seem to think our lives are difficult, because they are our lives. And given our addiction to airing our outrage and judgements on social media, we as a culture seem to think we are greater than we are. Faced with so many people from so many different backgrounds who have lived out stories I can’t even imagine, I learned humility.
In October, a First Nations elder came in to give a talk to my students about humility . It was fascinating. He said that everyone has gifts and it’s our duty to share these gifts with the world. But we need to give them silently; it is not our place to boast about these gifts. It is the job of those around us to recognize them. The spirit animal of humility is the wolf because the wolf knows its place in the pack and does its job without fear or need of reward to help the whole pack survive.
An absolutely beautiful explanation. And an incredibly difficult concept to learn (or remember, for those of us who are older). Our selfie-culture, the let’s-bare-our-souls-on-social-media culture that we’ve created doesn’t have a smidge of room for humility.
Over the year, as I stopped talking about myself and started asking more questions to others and listening to their teachings and stories, I began to see my life become richer. Gratitude became a more regular quality in my life. Because I wasn’t sharing as much about myself, I started to relax into the worlds of others. I reflected on my own life, the blessings that have been bestowed upon me for no other reason than luck, my choices and how they affect the greater world. I allowed others to recognize my gifts instead of shoving them into people’s faces. And my gifts have been recognized in far more meaningful ways by people whose respect I cherish.
There is a great deal in this world to be learned if one is humble enough to recognize it and appreciate it. Think of the problems we could solve (globally and personally) if we didn’t assume we knew it all and actually listened to what others have to contribute.
Over the four months that Bob struggled to get back on his two feet after his third and final ankle surgery, I stopped going on to social media because I simply didn’t have time. And during this time, I realized something that I think I already knew: I didn’t really matter to anyone.
Only three people reached out and asked how I was. And nobody offered any help. Many people reached out and asked how Bob was doing (and rightly so). But not only did I realize care-givers are sorely overlooked in terms of receiving support but also that I, as a human being, didn’t register on anyone’s radar. You know that saying about a tree falling in the forest? I wondered, if you aren’t on social media, do you exist? I felt very alone.
But because of my new understanding of humility, I found it more interesting than upsetting. In a way, I expected this to happen. It made me reflect on the relationships I had fostered in my life and how authentic they were.
I discovered that very few people in my life fit my qualifications for being a friend (people who are non-judgemental, kind, share my core values and who actually want to know how I’m doing). These few that did were rock solid friends. I trust them with my life. Not having many friends was ok, because I also (re)learned that I don’t need a lot of people in my life.
Because I am really strong.
I’m a really competent person. Like, one of the most competent people I know. I hike mountains in winter, I was once on the local Search and Rescue team, I can navigate my way through any number of airports and pick up languages really easily. I do well on tests, I have an excellent memory (except for names), and I connect experiences and phenomena that others don’t. And I really don’t think I’m being arrogant. (I’m certainly not being humble, I understand, but I need you to know a little bit about me.) I have gotten pretty much every job I’ve applied for, I can solve logic tests quickly and I don’t panic anymore. I am highly organized and stubbornly determined. Anytime I get nervous about something, I lean into the discomfort and step forward. I challenge myself on a continual basis. I love learning.
For a long time, that wasn’t the case. I used to be highly anxious, uncertain and feeling completely worthless even though all of the above was still true. I went through a time that just wore away at my self-worth. I’ve had experiences throughout my entire life of people telling me either to my face or through other channels that I was just not a nice person or a good friend. (Yes, I’m being completely serious. Sometimes it was even that blunt.) I won’t go into details of the times it’s happened, but it has been enough times that eventually, one must just assume that if so many people feel justified enough to actually say that to someone then it must be true.
But then, this fall, I don’t know what it was that finally clicked, but it came to me. It hit me like a tonne of bricks. There is only one person in this whole world who needs to like me.
Maybe it was getting off of social media and realizing that the only person who needed to accept my decisions was me. I didn’t need the fickle and superficial acceptance of people who really don’t care. Maybe I was just sick of letting other people’s judgement affect my emotional well-being all the time. I know I have my flaws but so does everyone else, including (especially) the haters. Maybe I was sick and tired of people telling me I wasn’t a good person. Because the truth is, they aren’t any better.
Taking a break from it all made me take a good look at what I valued, make decisions for myself and for those I loved, and reminded me that I don’t need anyone else’s approval for my life. NO ONE’S. During my time of solitude, every decision I made was for Bob, the dogs or my students. And I was never more satisfied with my effort. I could truly say that I did everything I could to accomplish what needed to get done, with compassion and grace. I lay my head down each night absolutely exhausted but at peace in the knowledge that if something didn’t work out, it wasn’t because I didn’t give it my all.
This year, I learned how to belong to myself. How to rely on myself. How to trust my own instincts and my own thoughts. I don’t need anyone’s help for anything anymore. I am perfectly capable of doing it on my own. And if I can’t, I will reach out to that handful of people I trust or I’ll hire someone who can help. I certainly don’t feel I know everything, but I feel that I know myself better than I ever have.
And I really like me.
This one was huge. It took me almost the whole year to figure this one out and it still takes a lot of mindfulness to practice it.
I have carried a lot of anger around with me for quite some time now. It stems from feelings of being unjustly treated by people I trusted more than I obviously should have. The anger is also fueled by shame at letting myself be treated in such a way, by not standing up for myself and what I believe in, as well as giving out my trust so easily and undeservedly…time after time.
The thing that made it so difficult to work through my anger was that I was certain that the people who I felt wronged me, if confronted, would not be sorry in any way for what happened nor would they feel it was their fault. When I really reflected on the past and tried to see the situation as objectively as I could, in the end, I felt that they would still feel justified for acting the way they did and that they made the right choices.
The big question: How do I forgive someone who isn’t sorry? Isn’t the whole point of forgiveness to accept an apology? What if I was never going to get an apology? I had nowhere to go for this answer. I didn’t know anyone who knew enough about it. So I googled it. What I found surprised me. Then, one evening I went to a social event at which my aunt was also present. My aunt is a fascinating woman. She is a life celebrant and a deeply spiritual person who has helped guide many people through all sorts of life experiences. We got into a conversation and I asked her this question about forgiveness. (This was my first step towards my fourth gift – courage.) She echoed everything I found online. (I should have gone to her first.)
It turns out that forgiveness has nothing to do with the other person. It has to do with me.
Forgiveness is letting go. Whether there is remorse or not.
It turns out forgiveness is very different than I had previously understood it. It’s not about making peace with the person who wronged you. It’s about making peace with yourself. It’s about working through those strong emotions that fill us with uncomfortable feelings so that we can manage them more effectively and they don’t cloud our thoughts and poison our souls. It’s an entirely internal process.
My aunt shared a story of someone who had greatly wronged her and she said the only way she could forgive them was to pray for them. I’m not the praying type and to be honest, the last thing I wanted to do was to be compassionate to these people who had so deeply wronged me. But I was drowning in anger and hate.
Instead, whenever these toxic thoughts jumped into my head, I shut it down and said, “I hope she’s happy.” At first, it took a lot of effort just to say that. The more I said it, the faster I moved through my anger and the more clear it became that people who treat others that way are seriously unhappy people, perhaps even unbalanced. And that actually has nothing to do with me. (See lesson #1.) The angry thoughts didn’t just go away but over time, I was able to snap out of it faster and to offer more positive energy their way, which in turn helped alleviate the negative feelings.
The way I was treated was not in response to who I was or whether I was a good human being or not (see lesson #2). It had to do with their own pain and their own issues that they couldn’t deal with. I’m not trying to wash my hands of any of my faults. I will be the first to admit my shortcomings. But I can rest my head at night with no regrets, if I have lived my life to the best of my ability – failures and successes – then in no way do I – or anyone – deserve ill-treatment and disrespect.
This is an ongoing journey. I still have moments when I get pulled back into my old thoughts but I think I would say that I have learned how to forgive. Like learning how to drive a standard, it takes a lot of time and a lot of practice to do it well.
I have pictures of the Cowardly Lion in my head when I read that title. But in fact, I don’t mean it as a synonym for brave. I mean it more in its truest sense.
Courage originally meant “to speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart.”
In May, I read Brené Brown’s book Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone and learned that truly belonging means belonging to yourself. It means standing up and being honest to who you are. This sounds really simple. But it’s far from easy.
To be yourself means that you need to put your whole self out there into the world. The scary part is that when you are honest with the world about who you are, you become vulnerable to all of its terrible qualities – judgement, scorn, rejection. You become a target for all of those people who don’t have the courage to stand up and be themselves and to accept others for who they are. When we speak our hearts, we need to accept that we might end up alone. Not physically necessarily, but emotionally.
The first time I was faced with saying something that meant a great deal to me to someone who meant a great deal to me and knowing that what I was about to say may not be accepted was terrifying. I can think of no other word for it. It was terrifying to think, “If I say this, I might be standing alone. Am I strong enough for that? If I don’t say this, I will be denying that this part of my soul exists. Am I strong enough for that?” I clearly saw before me the wilderness of unacceptance and exclusion. Could I accept that?
In the end, I spoke my heart. It wasn’t well received on the other end. And now there is a readjustment of expectations in this particular relationship. While this has been heartbreaking and difficult, I hope that eventually the relationship can move forward with honesty and authenticity. And isn’t that a better way to be? If you’re going to be in my life, be in my life because of who I am, not because of what I can do for you.
Courage – speaking one’s heart, even if it means you stand alone – is really hard. It’s very uncomfortable. Putting yourself into a place of vulnerability and fully acknowledging and accepting the consequences takes a lot of strength and courage. I totally understand why people don’t do it. But I know that I have a lot to offer the world. I don’t want to be the person that just follows the pack because it’s easier. I want to feel like I’m becoming the person I was always meant to be.
So now I enter the next year with these four gifts. I feel like whatever this year throws at me, I’ll be better equipped than ever to handle it. I feel like no matter what happens, I have the tools to sleep well at night, to make choices that are true to me and to trust in myself, to hold myself accountable for my own mistakes and to move forward, through the grey areas with integrity and grace.
Bring it on!