My 40th birthday is fast approaching and I’ve been devouring those “What I’ve Learned in My 40 Years” lists like candy.
I find them to be insightful, inspiring, and slightly depressing. Because while everyone has been going through life accumulating wisdom and rules to live by, I’ve been going the opposite way. Unlearning. Here’s a list of the top seven things I have unlearned in my (almost) 40 years.
1. There are right and wrong choices in life. Choosing the right ones will lead to happiness and success. Choosing the wrong ones will guarantee you a spot in rehab or hell.
I was a good girl for so many years. I did well in school, barely drank, didn’t take a single puff of anything, and never kissed on the first date. It’s true that I am fortunate to now have a great husband and kids. But, it’s also true that that wild girl who slept with half of our graduating class and drank like a fish is having a pretty fabulous time, too. I’m sure that she’s had some hard days–I’ve had my share, too–but she’s also had a lot of adventures and experiences that I was way too uptight to try.
Life is not a mathematical equation. Sure, hard work and clean living can lead to financial and professional success, but neither of those things guarantee happiness. Far too many of the “good kids” have ended up in bad marriages or in lifestyles that don’t fit them.
2. Listen to your elders.
One time, at a very fancy (Kveller) party, I found myself sitting next to a lovely, senior woman. She advised me to live life boldly and fiercely. To not let society’s rules and expectations bind me. She gave me a list of successful, independent women to research. I found her dazzling and inspirational.
The very next week I sat next to an elderly woman at the library who told me that the key to a happy life is to follow the rules, live a quiet life, and always ALWAYS put my children first.
Both women had entirely different approaches to life, and yet, both seemed to be happy.
When I was younger, I frequently looked to my elders to help me navigate life. First my own parents, then professors, friends, and religious leaders. All those varied approaches sent me ricocheting back and forth between different perspectives. What I learned is that there are a million different paths to happiness. What I unlearned is that there is one person who can direct me to mine.
3. Faith in God will make everything OK.
I come from a long line of very spiritual people. For a long time I thought that I was somehow deficient because God didn’t speak to me. As hard as I tried, I could not find that faith that seemed to come so easily to my mother. It made me feel frustrated and deficient.
Then slowly, bit by bit, I stopped berating myself for not having absolute faith. By letting doubt seep into my heart, without judgment or fear, I gained a giddy sense of freedom, and surprisingly, peace. I realized that I don’t have control over my faith, and that not believing in God doesn’t make me any better or worse than anyone else. Just maybe a little more honest with myself.
And, if one day, God, or some other collective consciousness, chooses to speak to me, well, my ears and heart are open. Until then, I’m happy to live in the knowledge that I am extraordinarily lucky to be alive in this beautiful world right here and now. And that is enough.
4. One day I will grow up.
If it hasn’t happened by now, it’s not likely to ever happen. While I may look like a 39-year-old woman on the outside, on the inside I am 6 and 13 and 21 and 30 and all the numbers in between.
I used to think that there would be this grand, marvelous moment when I would be a complete, whole human being with concrete truths and opinions. Like a butterfly, I would spread my wings and BECOME.
Life doesn’t work that way. We never become, we are only becoming. Every day, in a million different ways. I am not the same person now that I was when I was 21, and I won’t be the same person at 45 that I am today.
This realization was perhaps the most astounding to me. We make all these decisions in life–marriage, careers, places to live–based on the assumption that we are a certain kind of person with certain desires. And then we change. And change again. And sometimes those choices continue to reflect who we are, and sometimes they don’t.
I think maybe happiness relies on our ability to accept those changes in ourselves and do our best to adapt our choices to our changing selves.
5. Finding the right person to marry is the key to a happy life.
I have a wonderful, fabulous, remarkable husband who is very well suited to me. And yet, he is not the key to my happiness.
When we were kids, my mom would tell us that she wouldn’t rest easy until we were each married. For many years, I thought of marriage as a goal, an achievement, a sense of security. You didn’t have to be happily married (because most of the people that I knew weren’t), but as long as you had a partner to navigate through this tricky world, you would be just fine.
By the time I was in my early 30s, almost everyone I knew was married. But, few of them were happy. Even many of the couples that seemed indestructible crumbled to bits before their 10-year anniversaries.
There is a security in marriage, but it’s far from absolute. How can it be when we’re all changing so much? The only real security I’ve found in life is the ability to generate my own happiness. The funny thing is, having this ability seems to make my marriage even stronger.
6. Community is important*
This one has an asterisk by it. I do believe that community is important. But, what I’ve un-learned is that this community has to come from any sort of structured setting. As hard as I’ve tried, I have never been able to find a group of friends based on religious affiliation, career, or anything else really.
My community is based on the people who make me laugh, who support me, who warm my heart. They come from all walks of life. Finding them has taken years of searching and filtering and even a few broken hearts.
Sometimes, I see my Facebook friends posting pictures of reunions with their sorority sisters (who are still their best friends), or their mom’s club outings, and I feel a little pang of sadness. Never in my life have I had such a large community of friends that I met with regularly.
I used to think it was because of some inherent deficiency, but now I wonder if I am just extra particular about the people in my community. And, while my community may be smaller and more spread out, each member of it is a kindred spirit, a soul mate, a precious diamond.
7. It is important to make a good living.
Look, I am not denying that having financial security isn’t nice. But, I have lived both very poor and quite comfortably with no discernable difference in my happiness. In fact, I often yearn for those days when my husband and I would save our pennies to go to the $1.50 movie theater.
I am extremely grateful for the fact that I don’t have to worry about how we will pay for groceries or the mortgage, especially since having kids. But, if there are any “things” that will make me happier, I have yet to find them.
Travel is the one exception to this un-learning. While not essential, having the money to travel a bit certainly has made my life richer.
I will (hopefully) spend my birthday with the dearest members of my community. We will dance and laugh and embrace and celebrate my 40 incredible years on this earth. And when I have blown out the last of my candles I will look to the future and hope that, at long last, after all those years of un-learning, it will finally be my time to start actually learning a thing or two.