Life’s ticking away. Although inside of me there’s a young girl who will always feel about 17, I know that’s not what other people see when they look at me. I’m now well and truly into the second half of my life and although on the one hand it’s scary to live in a body which I know will only deteriorate and with a memory which has already started to let me down, on the other hand I like the feeling of being comfortable in my own skin which has only come as I’ve got older.
It’s a great pity that so many of life’s important lessons take so very long to learn. There are a lot of things I know now which I would really have benefited from knowing a couple of decades ago! For instance:
• It doesn’t matter what other people think of you. Just go through life doing what you think is right when you weigh things up carefully. Then if other people misinterpret your actions and words, that’s not your problem but theirs. And if you are upset by what someone thinks of you, ask yourself whether you respect that person’s opinion. If the answer’s no, then waste no further thought on the matter. If you do value that person’s opinion, then take the time to speak to them to clarify any misunderstanding.
• “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” These words are attributed to the Scottish theologian Ian Maclaren and they’ve brought me down to earth on many occasions. They are an apt reminder that we need to see things from everyone else’s viewpoint as well as our own. We may think our problems are worse than other people’s, but we’re often unaware of what that person is going through. To the individual concerned, their own difficulties are probably at least as serious as yours.
• Cherish your work/life balance. I’m convinced that the workplace is much tougher than it used to be. There is far more performance reviewing and target setting than there used to be and consequently far less job security. Moreover, with the advent of so many easy ways to communicate, employers seem to think they can intrude on employees’ non-working hours any time they feel like it. No doubt hard work and dedication are admirable attributes, but I’ve come to believe that no employer thinks any better of you for working ridiculous hours. They will still make you redundant without a second thought when it suits them, so they don’t deserve your absolute loyalty. So put your health and your family first. Work a fair day, then relax and enjoy yourself with those you love best.
• Follow your dreams. As children we have all sorts of imaginative plans and ambitions, all of which tend to fade as reality sets in and the relentless need to pay the bills convinces us that we have to stay in a boring rut. Of course we have to eat, keep a roof over our heads and care for our dependants, but that doesn’t mean that those dreams and ambitions can’t be reviewed from time to time. Maybe a change of career is not beyond possibility if you plan well. Or maybe you can take up a hobby which will compensate for the things you’d like to do but can’t at the moment. And as you reach your fifties and sixties, maybe your time and finances will be freed up a little so that now is the time to please yourself and fulfil those ambitions. Why wait any longer?
• Appreciate and be grateful for the little things. When I was younger I was always living in the future – planning what I needed next or what I wanted to accomplish. At the back of my mind was a kind of “I’ll be happy when I’ve managed to….” attitude. Now I know that moving to a bigger house or achieving a promotion or affording an exotic holiday will not bring lasting happiness. There is happiness in abundance to be found in a laugh with a friend, the silhouette of a tree against the sunset, a good book with a cup of tea, a brisk walk on a windy day, an unexpected and welcome visitor. I feel sad that I failed to register so many of these small tings when I was younger and so grateful that I register them now.
• Worrying doesn’t solve anything. My mother was a great worrier and I follow in her footsteps. It’s not something I recommend, since worrying can be agonising. Many of my most severe worries have concerned the threats (both realistic and unrealistic) to the safety of loved ones. Nowadays I try to ask myself: “Is this worrying serving any useful purpose?” Of course, the answer is always no. Even if your worst worry became a reality, would the fact that you had anticipated it through anxiety make it any the less troubling? Not at all. In fact, if there are problems to deal with, they’ll be better faced by someone who has not spent a sleepless night worrying. Usually, though, everything’s fine and the anxiety was just the product of an over-active, over-pessimistic imagination.
• Make a list of what makes you happy in life. Work out how to put more of those things in your life. Make a list of what makes you miserable. Work out a plan to have fewer of those things in your life.
So it all sounds simple enough. But you wouldn’t believe how long it’s taken me to learn that lot! And, of course, it’s still very hard to put it all into practice every day.
What about you? What would you want to tell your twenty year-old self? What life lessons do you consider the most important?