Last year upon the coming of the new year I wrote about taking care of oneself holistically, merging wellness of mind, body and spirit. The article can be found here. I’ve thought long and hard over the last few weeks about my hopes for the new year. What are the greatest lessons I learned last year? Or better yet, what were my biggest mistakes, my biggest regrets?
Certainly each year my hope is for progression and change for the better. I find myself stuck on the hedonic treadmill that tells me I’ll be happier once I graduate, become more physically fit, buy my dream house, marry Leonardo DiCaprio, and so forth. Yet disappointment inevitably finds he who seeks happiness in a future that is never in the here and now. As such, perhaps my biggest regrets lay in getting stuck and doing little to get unstuck.
Both research and common wisdom tell us that the greatest satisfaction we can hope for in life is found in each other. Social relationships, connectedness, and community are what lead to longer, healthier and happier lives. Yet often these are the very things we ignore or do not prioritize. And even when we do, we may still get stuck.
For example, in therapy I often talk to clients about the practice of making friends. When we were young perhaps our mother walked us over to another child and encouraged us to play with them. If they shared their toys or were generally nice, we may have been content to join along. They didn’t need to share our values, life philosophies or anything further than an appreciation for brushing Barbie’s hair or collecting the maximum amount of Legos to build a structure that was astronomical in size.
But in adulthood, like with most things, it became more complicated. You needed to consult your schedule for starters. And as with any mechanical procedure, it can get old or uninteresting, so we may lose interest and abandon the mission altogether. What does any of this have to do with regrets? Well, I’d say that often when we are uninspired, it is related to the decisions we have made.
If there was one grave mistake I made last year it was trying to befriend those who had no interest in being friends with me, and then taking things personally. I wasted far too much time worrying about who I thought hated me rather than embracing those who were already in my life supporting me unconditionally. I’ll never forget the tiny words scrawled on a bookmark my mother gave me once. It read, “to the world you may be just one person, but to one person you may be the world.” It summed up a profound notion that I never believed. Because if I did, it would have been enough. But instead, I tried to be the world to those who lived on a different planet, even galaxy maybe. In doing so I stirred up needless feelings of anger and frustration in myself.
I was recently reading Jack Kornfield’s "Meditation for Beginners," when I came across this meaningful passage:
There is a place in everyone that yearns to love, that longs to be safe, that wants to treat others and ourselves with respect. Sometimes that place is buried underneath layers of fear, old wounds, cynicism, and pain that we have used to protect ourselves from injury.
Though as a therapist I have often had the rare privilege of meeting the vulnerable person beneath these layers, as a human being I often forget that all of life is not a therapy session. People may not treat me with kindness and care. While I may not be able to alter that, what I can change is how often our paths cross and my own reactions to it. Remembering that their abrasiveness is likely the cause of a deeper wound I know nothing of. It is difficult to do, as we are imperfect beings. And yet, we are nearly perfect when it comes to treating ourselves carelessly and protecting ourselves from the turbulent currents. But also, we can be too quick to point fingers. So perhaps it may be just as important to state that maybe I wasn’t as kind as I’d intended and put out the wrong type of energy to receive this in return.
My second regret then naturally follows the first. Too often this last year, I didn’t let go. There is that old song by the Byrds that goes “to everything there is a season.” Therefore I spent too much time wondering if I could go back in time and do things differently if things would have played out in another way. It’s the illustrious and endless, “what if” game that we play with ourselves.
But letting go is about more than the past. It’s letting go of fears, unrealistic expectations, doubts about ourselves and our worthiness in the world. It’s about freeing ourselves from the shackles of our minds. It is exceptionally hard work. In fact, I highly doubt this is an area I will gain any form of mastery over in the next few years or even decade. It is my greatest hope that I will, but in the meantime I’ve set this as my intention.
A close cousin to letting go is acceptance. Accepting things, people, situations for what they are and not forcing them to change allows for an analogous freedom. Throughout my training I’ve worked with a variety of people with an even bigger variety of personalities. Perfectionists, catastrophizers, and everything in between. I too, was a hardcore perfectionist once. In some ways I may still be. Seeing the anguish brought forth by needing things to be done a certain way I gave it up. It was simply taking too much out of me. Yet, often I work with individuals intensely preoccupied with crossing every “t” and dotting every “i.” Try as I might to explain these are needless worries to others, I cannot make them believe anything. All I can do is accept that we are at different places rather than try to change them.
Acceptance is internal in a whole host of other ways that could be entire books unto themselves. I often speak most fondly of my time in the Midwest during graduate school. Though the initial adjustment was difficult, I came to find a sort of acceptance among the people I met that was unlike anything I’d experienced previously in my life. Having come from the West coast, where admittedly and embarrassingly things are a bit more superficial, it was amazing to be able to just be myself. It didn’t matter what I wore or even what I looked like. I was always welcome to any event, any table and treated just the same. I also realized that despite the stressors of graduate school, interpersonally, I’d never felt so relaxed and so at ease. Yes, now friends who know me well know that I have a certain fondness for anything with glitter, sequins, and shine. But the point is, it’s most fun when it’s on your terms. That dress up is a matter of self choice and not an expectation put out there by others within a narrowly defined margin.
Related to this, I do have a final noteworthy regret. This year (ok, more like many before it) I was fairly self-absorbed. This is actually probably my biggest vice, because I accept it the least. As a youngest child I’ve often been accustomed to getting my way. And as a decent student I could often negotiate with teachers to again…get my way. It suffices to say then that I know little about compromise in my own life, as much as I recommend this to others. Hypocritical, I know.
Although there is a fun public side to getting to voice my opinions on an amazing forum such as this column, it can also be difficult to step off of my soap box and see the realities of others. Over the Winter holiday I was very fortunate to briefly visit Jamaica. While I’d initially anticipated a day of fun in the sun, our itinerary actually took us to a sugar cane and papaya farm. As we bounced around on the jitney, we passed through many tiny parishes where the poverty was unmistakable. I had the immediate realization that in such conditions my job was actually pretty useless. I wasn’t trained to provide medical care, education, test for pollutants, or really do anything that would be remarkably helpful. Test anxiety, homesickness, even panic attacks seem to have little place in a world where the challenge is getting by day to day.
Though intellectually I’ve known this for some time, I don’t think I quite absorbed that fact until then. It also reminded me how out of touch I’d become with the struggles of others. I recall reading an inspiring status update from an old supervisor over Thanksgiving. She’d written about delivering meals to the less fortunate. Back in high school I’d organized all sorts of community service projects from Valentine’s Day cards for sick children at a hospital to care packages in Honduras. And yet, it’s been years since I’ve stepped outside of myself to help others in such a service capacity. The reality is that it’s not that difficult to do.
What are my hopes for this year? To mindful and aware of life as it is unfolding. Taking in the good with the bad. But also stopping and re-assessing when things don’t feel right. My reflections of the last year may not resonate with others at all. Or maybe parts of it do. Even this practice of writing down what I aspire to do differently has been an exercise of self-growth in itself. Perhaps you, the reader, will pick up a pen and take a few moments to write down the challenging lessons you learned last year. It’s not necessarily about resolutions, as much as it is about deciding to love and care for yourself fully. Because when you do, it opens yourself up to love and embrace others around you that much more. With that, I wish all of my wonderful readers the happiest and brightest of New Years. May you find warmth, love, and contentment.