NOTE: I wrote this a couple nights ago while laying in bed. The VERY NEXT DAY, a dear sweet friend told me that some of MY WORDS had something of this affect on him…. I just…. when you continue reading, you will understand why this felt like one of the most proud moments of my life. To hear someone I love and admire say this to me… about my work… Okay maybe I’m blowing his comment out of proportion, but it did mean a lot that my work means even just something to someone.
Dad and I were sitting around the bonfire one evening this week, getting into some meandering, thoughtful conversations- as it usually goes. With the crackle of the fire and the movement of the flames, the deep musk of woodsmoke and fresh air, the biting crisp wind of early spring and the intense heat coming off the coals, it’s meditative. It’s comforting in its extreme contrast. Perhaps it’s the oldest tradition we humans have- gathering around the fire to share our worries and joys. I get a vulnerable there.
Dad and I have our best conversations in that corner of the backyard. I can freely ruminate on my thoughts about the world without feeling so goofy.
You might think I am going to share an epiphany that I had there at the fireside… but really I was having realizations about the nature of “epiphany” itself.
I intensely love epiphany. While at first it appears to be an act of receiving, it strikes me more as a recognition. It is a returning to a thought or inclination that has been within me all along, just waiting to be fully formed. I get this gut feeling like “I can’t be JUST getting this for the first time, surely?” The affirmation is SO SATISFYING. All the loose ends get tied up. I simultaneously feel like I learned something but also knew it all along. I’m both bewildered and…. kind of smug! Does anyone else get this feeling?
Those borderline magic moments can compel a person to start charting a different course in an instant. But just because it seems to hit like a flash of lightning does not mean it was just one moment. It is the different threads of one’s story and knowledge weaving into each other slowly over time, until they come together in one final, satisfying conclusion.
So Dad and I were discussing this, and I told him that I have such cherished memories of when random epiphany changed my life. I remember the moments vividly. And from that point on, those concepts lodge themselves in the very forefront of my brain. They appear in every moment I feel uncertain.
It struck me- if these motivations must first collide with something deep inside, that must also mean they are somewhat unique to me.
By extension, yours are not the same as anyone else’s. So the things I find incredibly profound and, simply put, TRUE- well, they might quite possibly seem inconsequential, or at least not quite as important, as the things that compel you on a daily basis. We have different truths innately lying in wait in our cores. (This is not an original thought, one only has to turn to moral psychology to find a much better explanation than the mess I just gave. Of course, I never quite understood it in this context until now.)
That is SO COOL. I want to know your personal “big life changing moments”. I want to know where you were when you heard it. How old you were. Where you were at in your life. What you were struggling with. I wish I could know this about every person I meet- because I want to know what lights a fire in you. I want to know what you truly and deeply care about and prioritize in life. Imagine the kind of compassion with which we would lead our lives if we knew these things about each other.
So here’s my list of life-altering ideas to which I always find myself turning- and returning. I hope you get something out of them, too, and I have no doubt I will reveal a bit about myself in the process. (I also feel like I have to tell you… this note in my phone is literally labeled “random shit that changed my life:”
1. POSITIVE FEEDBACK
Most recently, a show on Netflix called 100 Humans sparked an epiphany! In episode 5, the hosts conduct an experiment on the “humans” to study the effectiveness of positive and negative feedback- basically, will you excel more if you are given the vote of confidence? Or does a sense of adversity and challenge best motivate? Overwhelmingly, the people who were encouraged achieved more in a random, difficult task. Let me say that again. THE POSITIVE MOTIVATION WON. I think of all the teachers I have had in my life and wonder how things could have turned out differently for me with a little more praise and encouragement.
I remember a time that my parents gave me critical feedback after a play, and I fought back… mostly because I was portraying a role that felt vulnerable and sensitive for me. I was playing an “ugly step sister” in Cinderella during my most awkward years, when I very truly worried that I was gross and ugly. (Damn it’s rough being twelve years old!) So their comments that I wasn’t playing up the negative (and comedic) traits of my character enough were hard to hear because ALL I wanted was to not actually have the audience walking away thinking that about me! (I know, learn the difference between acting and real life, J!) BUT all this is to say that I wonder if they had chosen to praise me, compliment the glimmers of risk they could see wanting to emerge, would I have been coaxed to stretch myself further? Would I have started to learn to be less sensitive?
I have started to apply this idea in my own life, and it feels SO much better as a teacher, friend, and family member to use positivity as a call to action.
After Mom died, I returned to work at a restaurant pretty quickly. I mean, within three weeks. I started to notice that my patience for small, petty issues had become INCREDIBLY limited. I started to call it my “Bullshit Meter”- there was only so much I could take before I just wanted to shout “STOP. NONE OF THIS MATTERS.” Because I had a dead Mom and a lot of big, important things that I would never get back. I really didn’t have the energy to be worrying or arguing about things that weren’t quite literally life or death. Everything inauthentic became unbearable. But whenever I referred to my “Bullshit Meter” out loud, people didn’t quite get it. So, I stopped trying to talk about it.
Then, years later (3.5 to be exact) I heard that a guy I loosely knew through work named Michael had given a TEDx talk in Nashville. And because I love his wife, and I’m curious by nature, I turned it on. And during my drive to work one day, he, too, changed my life. His whole talk is incredible, so I will link it below, but he had me at the first talking point- Practice Rigorous Authenticity. He clarified why I had felt so frustrated, because honesty and reality is often so quickly squashed in our society right now. Michael invigorated me to again start fighting against the inauthenticity I wanted to challenge every single day.
Now, more than ever before, when we have a chance to take a step back from our social lives and focus on the basics, I am seeing how much inauthenticity goes into our everyday activities. I hope I can leave some of it behind after this is all over. You really should listen to the talk.
There’s a scene in the movie Letters to Juliet in which there is a misunderstanding between Sophie and Charlie that leads to some hurtful words and an argument- and the wiser, older Claire tells her grandson “Her mother chose to leave her. You always knew your parents loved you.” It’s so simple, really, but it struck me that if you don’t proceed past the basic facts of a situation and choose to imagine the feelings of those involved… well you haven’t really thought about them, have you? It’s a lesson in empathy. And privilege. We should be grateful when we have more than someone else and keep that in mind. That isn’t to say that you should downplay your pain because others had it worse- your brain can always make that argument and invalidate your feelings, in a contrived, endless hierarchical chain of tragedies. No- this is just to remember that others will hurt differently, even if your situations are similar. That sometimes you don’t understand the hurt someone else is enduring. Especially if you didn’t ask. You have to ask. You have to think of others. We’re human, and this isn’t easy- but it’s worth the extra effort.
4. IT’S NOT ALL ABOUT YOU
In college, one of our professors loved the book The Four Agreements- she didn’t have us read it, but she would often remind us of its tenants. And one of them struck me the first time I heard it. “Don’t take things personally.” Whenever my loved ones are hurting, I practically beg them to stop thinking about how someone’s actions reflect their own worth or talent or effort or character or whatever…. Everyone’s actions and words are a direct reflection of themselves. Maybe it spoke to me because I started studying psychology in high school and my eyes opened wiiiide at the concept of defense mechanisms, specifically projection and transference. It taught me that our thoughts and feelings aren’t always… correct. This whole thing helps me ask questions to understand the other person better when I feel hurt by them, and it also spurs me to examine my own thoughts and motives when negativity arises. It helps me to not see every little thing as a judgment on myself- cause I, who coulda thunk, am not the center of the universe. Ha. It’s almost like an inverse form of empathy.
And I will just leave you with one more, my first and favorite, because this has been long and self-indulgent.
5. BE CURIOUS
“Ask people about themselves. People love to talk about themselves.” This was a piece of advice from my momma. You see, when I was a kid I had A LOT of social anxiety. Still do, actually. But because of this instruction, I learned to deal with it (and hide it) a whole lot better! It sounds a bit condescending if you didn’t know my mom, but it’s not a negative viewpoint at all. It’s just fact- people like to feel noticed. And recognized. And important. Belonging to a group was the most essential part of early human survival, it is ingrained in our DNA to try to feel valued and recognized in the group. My mom was smart enough to realize that long before Brene Brown came around and started teaching it to the masses. This is why her funeral was completely packed. She noticed people. She extended her care and curiosity and attention to anyone, and and it meant a lot to everyone she met.
So there you have it. And the fact that my words could possibly be included on someone’s list is more than I can comprehend. If you made it all this way, thanks for reading. I love you.