From January to March, I traveled to Mozambique, Africa to do volunteer work. I did not speak the language. I did not understand the culture. I was immersed in a completely strange world for two months.
In April, we put our house up for sale. The prospect of uprooting and moving is destabilizing, and one of life’s biggest stressors.
Then in May my marriage failed, and I separated from my wife. We had been together for almost nine years. I became well acquainted with pain beyond anything I had ever known.
In June I decided to pursue my lifelong dream of singing in a rock band—mid-life crisis or perhaps an awakening of sorts. Either way, it has been a whole lot of fun doing something I love to do.
In August my son left home for university. It was a very exciting and emotional time for all of us, the end of one chapter and the beginning of another. Both sad and exciting, and I am incredibly proud of who he is and who he is becoming.
And in September my last remaining grandparent, my grandmother, died at the age of 97. She was an incredible woman who saw so much change, and packed a whole lot of life into her years.
In the past year, amidst all the turbulence, a few insights have gradually revealed themselves to me. Maybe they will resonate with you.
1. Nothing is permanent.
Yet we are programmed for the opposite. We want life to feel safe and secure. We want life to be predictable. Permanence gives us the illusion that it is.
But the reality is that nothing is permanent, and the only thing we know we can count on is change. The more we push for permanence in life, against the current, the more disappointed we become when we find it is not achievable to the extent we think it should be. But if we can accept the fluidity of life, our entire approach to it changes.
2. Give it time.
Why is it that life can look hopeful one day, and so very dark the next? Very little of my actual situation has changed from one day to the next. But my perception of it can change minute by minute based on how I am feeling in that moment—tired or rested, peaceful or angry, whole or damaged.
I am learning not to overreact in the moment, or make important decisions when I am feeling down. I am learning that painful and difficult things will pass. I am learning to allow time to heal.
3. Practice gratitude.
In the midst of difficult times, I have a strong tendency to dwell on the negative. And then everything looks dark, and it tends to snowball.
But there are always things to be grateful for in life—my friends, my health, my relationships, or even my next meal. I often think back to my time in Mozambique and remember the crippling poverty that most people live with every day. And yet they are, by and large, happy and grateful for what they do have.
We can make a huge difference in our state of mind by focusing more on what we do have, how lucky we are, and counting our blessings.
4. Be gentle with yourself.
I am my own worst critic, often focusing on my perceived failings and inadequacies. All this does is reinforce the bad. And by reinforcing it, that is the reality I create for myself. So I am slowly learning to cut myself some slack, and perhaps even start liking who I am. What a concept!
And I am starting to see is a direct correlation between how I treat myself, and how I am with others out in the world. By treating ourselves gently and with kindness, we treat others the same way. And maybe this is how we learn to love.
5. Be here, now.
I have a lifelong tendency to look back or forward—anything but being present. Guilt and shame looks back, worry and anxiety look ahead. In either case, it is wasted energy.
If I feel that I need to do something to set things right, I should simply do it, then let it go and not allow these feelings to linger. For me, engaging in activities that force me to stay present helps: skiing, surfing, and singing. It’s not easy, but I am trying to be present in all that I do, and recognize when I’m not.
6. Give up control.
The need for control is very deeply rooted, and comes from a place of fear and insecurity.
We can plan all we want, but there are much bigger forces at work out there. And the bigger plan for us may not coincide with what we think should happen or the planned timetable we have in our head.
I will have faith that the universe wants to help me. My job is to step out of the way and let it work its magic.
7. Be yourself.
I have been a people pleaser for most of my life. There all kinds of expectations out there about what I should do, how I should do it, who I should be, and how I should fit in. And it is impossible for me to keep up; to satisfy everyone else’s preferred version of me. I push my needs aside, and eventually that turns to anger, depression, and resentment. It’s far less stressful for me to just to be me, and to be comfortable with who that is.
We can give ourselves a powerful sense of peace by learning who we are and allowing ourselves to be that. And let the chips fall where they may.
8. Eat. Sleep. Exercise.
This may seem basic, but when my life is in turmoil, I find that basic self-care can be the first to go out the window. I skip meals, or eat badly. My sleep suffers, and when I am not rested, my whole perspective on life changes for the worse. That’s usually when I make bad decisions and think dark thoughts. I feel lethargic and tend to want to skip exercise.
But these three are all connected, and they are some of the few things we actually can control to some degree. And when we force ourselves to practice good self-care, we feel better, stronger, and life seems brighter.
9. Don’t fight the pain.
It’s taken me a long time to learn this one. And I have a history of doing or using anything I can to not feel the pain. I know this doesn’t work because when I mask the pain, it never leaves. It just gets stronger, and comes out in other ways.
Pain demands to be acknowledged. And by letting ourselves feel it, it loses its grip, and passes through us much more quickly.
I have certainly not mastered any of these insights, in fact I continue to struggle with all of them. But underpinning it all is a sense of heightened awareness about the feelings I have, and where these feelings come from.
This is the first step in learning, accepting, and rolling with the perpetual changes, challenges, and pain that life offers up. And perhaps this is how the healing begins.
I wish us all the very best for 2014.