Advice, Memoir

Unexpected Life Lessons

While trying to organize my office, I found a piece of paper with a list scribbled on it… not an uncommon thing for me to find. My mom said that from the time I could hold a pencil in my hand, I was writing lists — important things like party ideas, gifts I wanted for Christmas, outfits to wear — you know, big things.

This list was titled, “Unexpected Life Lessons.”

Below that title was a subtitle, “Setting it Straight.” I listed the lessons I wanted to remember; the ones that have helped me set my thinking straight.

It was a long list, but here is a sampling:

1. Life rarely goes according to plan.

I’ve written about this before but when I was in college, I believed that I had four major decisions to make, and then my life would run on a smooth, thoughtfully-planned path.

Laugh if you want, but I believed that I needed to decide what to study, where to work, where to live, and who to marry.

Then, off I’d go.

I was so surprised when the formula didn’t stick.

My daughter Annie recommended the book, “It’s Not Supposed to Be This Way” by Lysa Terkeurst. The book is about how life often looks different than what we hoped or expected.

“If you are a human who has been doing the adult thing for more than twenty-four hours,” she wrote, “you’ve probably come to the same stunning revelation as I have. We cannot control our outcomes.”

That truth was a revelation to me. And, of course, it continues to prove true — over and over.

We can choose how to respond to the detours, distractions, and disappointments but we can’t always avoid them even with the best laid schemes.

I grew up believing all the cliches about being the captain of my ship, the narrator of my story, the designer of my destiny. So, it surprised me when my plans didn’t always go the way I imagined.

Having a backup plan is always a good idea, or better yet, believing God has one in store can be a saving grace.

Someone was telling me recently about her plan to have children. She had it all planned out — one every three years. Then, she discovered the heartbreak of infertility, and started looking into adoption. She said, “I kept saying, I might need to go to Plan B. Then, it hit me, maybe Plan B was Plan A all along.”

So much wisdom in that statement.

Terkeurst writes that our experiences with things not going as planned help us see our lives in the context of God’s bigger story.

Remembering there is a bigger story helps us keep a long-term perspective; and thankfully, perspective and the way we choose to look at things is something we can always control.

2. Don’t let fear be in charge.

I learned this lesson while sitting around a conference table in an executive committee meeting at a U.S. Presidential Inauguration. I had just been appointed as the communications director and we were all asked to introduce ourselves and share a little bit about our background.

As I listened to the impressive resumes and titles of the other directors, I thought, “I have no business being here.” I felt this sinking feeling of inadequacy.

As fear settled in, another thought came to me that felt like a reprimand or a scolding. “Don’t ever let yourself think that again because the minute you do, you’re done. Your confidence is shot, and it’s over. Then, I thought, “Believe you’re here for a reason. Don’t worry about everyone else. Do what you know how to do.”

That bit of wisdom definitely straightened out my thinking. I didn’t have time for doubts, fears, and those pesky insecurities that can so easily get in our way.

I love how Elizabeth Gilbert talks about fear in her book Big Magic. She explained how fear gets in the way of her writing. (A very real fear.) She decided to think of every writing venture as a road trip, acknowledging that fear will want to come along. So, she accepts fear’s presence, knowing it will wedge its way in somehow, but she sets some rules for it — it never gets a vote, never touches the map, can’t suggest detours, isn’t even allowed to fiddle with the temperature.

“Dude,” she says, “you’re not even allowed to touch the radio. But, above all else, my dear old familiar friend, you are absolutely forbidden to drive.”

Such an important life lesson, and one I need to remember every time fear bobs its head and makes me doubt myself.

3. You don’t need to do everything at once.

This may seem obvious to most people but it was a major lesson for me.

A friend was helping me move into a new apartment, and I was standing by my car wondering how I could get everything — or as much as possible in one trip.

Exasperated, I said, “I can’t get all this in one trip.”

Very matter of fact, he said, “Guess what? You don’t have to.”

Whoa.

That stopped me cold.

I don’t? I seriously thought that was one of the most profound things I’d ever heard. It’s such a basic truth, but one that often escapes me as I try — way too often — to do too much.

Just recently, I came home from a short road trip, got out of my car, and opened the back gate to retrieve everything I’d gathered on the journey, and once again thought, “I can’t get all this in one trip.”

Aha! “Guess what? You don’t have to!

I don’t need to do everything at once.

What an epiphany.

4. Sit with people in their grief or sadness.

When my mom died, a neighbor came to visit me to share her condolences. I invited her to sit down, and when she did, she settled into a comfortable chair in my family room as if she had all day, and said, “Tell me about your mom.”

I could tell by her body language, soft demeanor, and gentle tone of voice that she genuinely wanted to know about my mom, my loss, and memories.

That open-ended question and her sincere follow-up questions invited me to talk about how my mom died, what she was like, the hilarious things she said and did, the wisdom she shared, and what I would miss most about her.

I will always remember her example and that of so many others who have just been there for me when I’ve needed a friend — and they’ve been genuinely good listeners.

One of my favorite old movies is Shall we Dance with Richard Gere and Susan Sarandon. (It’s not a classic, but it’s always one I’m happy to watch again.) Maybe it’s because of this one line when Sarandon’s character is talking about marriage. She said when you marry someone, “you’re saying, your life will not go unnoticed because I will notice it. Your life will not go un-witnessed because I will be your witness.”

Listening and sitting with someone in their grief is a form of witnessing somebody else’s life and when someone listens to us and cares about our sadness, we feel like someone is witnessing and caring about ours.

So, there you have it, four of my unexpected life lessons.

I’d love to know some of yours. What small life lessons have you accumulated that have been helpful to you?