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.”


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?


Learning from Lance Armstrong

I’m still not over Lance Armstrong.

I know his dispassionate confession to Oprah is almost history now, but something else keeps needling me.

Új fejezetek Oprah-tól: Lance Armtrong - exklu...
(Photo credit: lwpkommunikacio)

It wasn’t his admissions to lying and cheating that bothered me so much. It was a casual reference he made that indicated he forgot what he learned from having cancer.

After receiving my cancer diagnosis, a friend gave me a copy of his book, “It’s Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life.” She said the book inspired her through her breast cancer journey.

It's Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life
It’s Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

With some trepidation, I read it before I started my chemo treatments.

My doctors advised me not to read stories about the experiences of others because of all the horror stories that get told, but I couldn’t help myself. And, every time I read one, I wished I hadn’t.

That’s how I felt about Armstrong’s memoir. I felt compelled to read it, but wished I hadn’t.

His stories scared me because his treatments were so intense and brutal, but I kept reading because I wanted to learn how he got through it, what it taught him, and how it changed him.

English: Cyclist Lance Armstrong at the 2008 T...
English: Cyclist Lance Armstrong at the 2008 Tour de Gruene Individual Time Trial, 1 November 2008 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

He fought cancer the same way he rode a bike up the Col du Tourmalet, the highest road in the French Pyrénées. He did it with ferocious intensity and in his own words, with “a ruthless desire to win.”

I couldn’t help but wonder, did his laser focus on the victory with all his self-proclaimed defiance and arrogance, cause him to skim over the deeply personal, transformative experience of cancer?

While I’m disappointed in Armstrong’s lies, I can’t believe he forgot his cancer lessons.

While cancer robs us of so many things, it also gifts us some intangible, pivotal lessons that if used well can enhance and improve our lives.

Among those gifts are clarity of purpose, dependence on God, humility, gratitude, perspective, greater appreciation for the human body and the fragility of life, self-respect, the supreme importance of relationships based on trust and honor, and many more.

Lance Armstrong Foundation
Lance Armstrong Foundation (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Someone told me my life would forever be divided into two parts — before and after cancer. I balked at that in the beginning, but see the truth of that statement play out more all the time. It’s that profound of an experience.

It’s sad that someone can get through cancer or other crucibles in life without ever really learning from them. But, as flawed human beings, we do. We forget the important stuff all the time.

It’s like working really hard for a certain goal, achieving it, and then forgetting how hard you worked to get there, who helped you along the way, and what it taught you.

Doug recently was telling me about hedonism for some reason, and the theory that we often want something so desperately that we feel we can’t live without it. Then, when we finally get it, it loses its luster and becomes normal, everyday, and overlooked as something special.

When it comes to cancer, however, I hope the lessons I learned are part of my DNA.

We all have life lessons we need to remember. What are yours?

Think about them today and take a minute to honor your experiences and lessons. I promise you’ll be a better person for it.

There are many lessons I need to learn from Lance Armstrong’s mistakes. The most important one is to never forget what matters in life.

As Armstrong listened to his son, Luke, defend him to his friends, he realized, he had to tell his son the truth. He told him to stop defending him because he didn’t deserve it. He had to admit his lies. I never want to have a conversation like that with my children or anybody else.

If we don’t remember the lessons from life’s difficulties, what purpose do they serve but to make us miserable?

Maybe I need to thank Lance Armstrong for admitting that he forgot what cancer taught him because it reminded me to remember.