Wednesday, June 13, 2012

21 Things I've Learned Since My Last Birthday

I can hardly believe it but it's here: I'm 21 years old.  According to the United States government, I have acquired the personal responsibility necessary for purchasing alcohol and gambling.  (Little do they know I'm probably still too immature for that...)  I figured today would be as good of a day as ever to take some time to reflect on how valuable the last year has been as far as a stepping stone for the future.  After a bit of brainstorming, I put together a list of some of the most important things I've come to realize in the last year.

So here you have it, 21 things I've learned since my last birthday (in no particular order):

1.  Your confidence, and more importantly, your sense of self should not be determined by others.
Feeling comfortable in your own skin is a tricky thing and frankly, it's something I'm still slowly but surely learning how to do myself.  It's natural from time to time to look in the mirror and not necessarily be satisfied with what you see and we all have bad days when we start to wonder if the hurtful criticism we've heard from others is really true after all.  Here's the thing though: others can be just plain wrong.  Granted, constructive criticism should always be welcomed but don't lose sight of the importance of the individual, that is, the things about you that make you unique, as a result of the voice of others.  You're exactly who you are for a reason.  Embrace it!

2.  Sometimes it's okay to say 'no.'
My apologies for what I'm sure is an overdone joke but sometimes 'no' is a far better response than 'YOLO' (okay, sorry. Had to make the reference--now I'm done. The moment's passed).  Never underestimate the importance of that feeling in your gut that tells you 'yes, go for it' or 'no, you really shouldn't do that.'  Taking risks is fine, if done correctly, but don't compromise your values or what's really important to you for the sake of carpe diem.  I won't go into the specifics of the DARE 'just say no!' spiel that I'm sure you've heard over a dozen times since grade school but really, if you feel deeply uncomfortable about doing something, or a given path just doesn't feel right to you, abandon it.  You don't have to do anything you don't want to do.

3.  Never be ashamed to ask for help.
I will admit firsthand that I hate having to call on others for help.  I want the satisfaction of saying that I've accomplished things on my own and that I'm independent enough to see commitments through without falling back on outside resources.  That said, sometimes there's a point when you can't juggle everything on your own and the answers to those tough questions you have aren't presenting themselves on their own.  I'm going to be vulnerable for a moment here for the sake of how it may or may not help others and reveal that I took advantage of university counseling services this year.  The truth is that the conflicts I was struggling with were not something I could handle on my own anymore and I needed an objective voice to hear me out and help me find a course of action that I could feel comfortable with.  What can I say, it's the best thing I've done for myself in God knows how long.  I'm not saying everyone needs to run out to a shrink and tell them their life story but if you ever feel overwhelmed, seek out even a family member or a friend and ask them.  Anyone who truly cares about you will be more than happy to lend an ear at the very least.

4.  Whenever you think you're alone, you're not.
This lesson is very much related to the previous one in that sometimes it's helpful to recognize that the spectrum of human emotion is a shared experience for us all.  F. Scott Fitzgerald, author of The Great Gatsby, once said, "[The beauty of all literature is that] you discover that your longings are universal longings, that you're not lonely and isolated from anyone.  You belong."  Although Fitzgerald was commenting on literature as an art form, I think his words are an adequate representation of human existence.  Anything you've ever felt has been at some point experienced by someone else.  You are not alone in anything that you feel and the acknowledgment of that truth will make the experience of suffering a much more bearable one.

5.  Never regret the things you have done for another person out of kindness.
One of my favorite pieces of literature is a prayer credited to Mother Teresa called "Do It Anyway."  In its essence, the prayer encourages the practice of forgiveness, kindness and sincerity, even in the face of contrary behavior from those we encounter.  The final lines of the prayer say, "It is between you and God.  It was never between you and them anyway."  Whether you are a believer or not, the final message remains the same: never be afraid to show affection or perform good works.  Do not let yourself be held back by the negative response given by others.  You have been given a light worth sharing so give without reservation.

6.  Know when to reel back.
Another lesson connected to the former, it's very necessary to know your limits and to be able to identify when you are being taken advantage of by another person.  Of course, one should not do anything solely for the sake of what will be received in return, however, it is important to preserve yourself, at least to a certain extent, from hurt.  Know when a situation, relationship, etc. is no longer fruitful and take time periodically to reflect on the harm or good that comes from it.  As sad of a realization as it may seem, some people come into our lives for a brief yet meaningful purpose: to teach us the hard lessons we need to learn.  Be mindful of the growth that a particular situation is inspiring you to pursue but keep aware also of the potentially destructive effects as well.

7.  If you're not happy with your life, change it.
It's a classic but it rings true: if you're not happy with how things are going, it's time to make some changes.  Familiarity and fear can be two big obstacles in terms of attaining happiness but it's important when things aren't going so well to step back and try and understand why that is.  As scary as self-reflection can be, it's key for any sort of growth or change.  Don't settle simply because you're scared!  You deserve all of the happiness and joy the world can offer.  If you're not finding that, maybe it's time to do things differently.

8.  Plan ahead... but not so much that you would be devastated by an alternate outcome.
I've said this before and I'll say it again: I am a worrier.  When I was in high school, I had a detailed plan for my future:  I was going to graduate top of my class, head off to Stanford University, marry my high school sweetheart, graduate, get a job, have babies, you know, the whole shebang.  Flash-forward seven years and here you have me... a fourth year at UC Berkeley, single and surprisingly okay with it, studying Spanish of all things.  Believe it or not, I'm more than content that my little plan for myself did not at all follow through after all but truth be told, it took me quite some time to get there.  The most wonderful plan you have for yourself, guess what? God's got something in mind that will top it tenfold--just be patient.  The more you plan ahead without any anticipation of a few detours, the more likely you are to be disappointed or think you've failed in some way.  That's not it at all!  Take a deep breath, set out some goals for yourself but go with the flow!  Things will turn out.

9.  Honesty is underrated.
For some reason, there's a huge stigma in our culture of self-expression.  Often we are too afraid to express our true feelings to others or even to say something nice because there's just something taboo about it for some reason.  Why!?  If you've got something you need to share with someone, positive or negative, do it and do it truthfully.  Honesty is all-important in any interpersonal relationship.  Granted, one should tell the truth lovingly--don't dish it out in a hurtful way just for the sake of being 'truthful.'  By telling the truth upfront, you'll find yourself getting into far less trouble later down the road!  Remember: the truth always comes out... and I mean, always.

10.  Don't sell yourself short.
Doubt can be healthy in that it triggers a sort of personal evaluation.  That said, don't let your reservations keep you from taking action.  You're more able than you think!  Be realistic but don't let your fears damage your confidence.  Keep in mind your talents and your abilities and use them in a way that both brings you satisfaction and has a positive impact on others.

11.  It's okay to be scared but don't let your fears prevent you from pursuing the ambitions closest to your heart.
Fear can be paralytic.  If you get caught up in your thoughts just enough, you'll stay frozen in the same spot.  As I said about doubt, it's healthy to investigate your insecurities but remember: fear is a human reaction that protects us.  If you are too focused on your fears, you may find yourself running into a wall that you've created for yourself.  If you've got a goal that you've wanted to pursue or that you find yourself being called to go after (think about that 'gut' feeling I mentioned earlier), chase it.  If you don't, you may find yourself feeling unfulfilled and quite possibly, even filled with regret.

12.  Change is hard but ultimately it can have a positive outcome.
There's no hard and fast rule as far as how long it takes to build a habit but I think we can all agree from personal experience that it can take quite some time.  A change isn't going to stick unless it can deliver a reward that you actually enjoy and therein lies the conflict.  Change can inspire a series of benefits that we may not have been able to enjoy otherwise but it takes effort.  Think back to my seventh lesson: be aware of the aspects of your life that might in some sense be problematic for you and investigate ways in which you could do something about those conflicts.  Knowing doesn't necessarily make the process of change easy but it does make it easier.  Everyone struggles with making changes but once you understand where to start focusing, then you can learn about what steps to take next.  There is a place to start and once you start, you're on the path to success.

13.  Never tolerate more than you deserve simply for the sake of someone else's happiness.
I hope I'm not being contradictory here (maybe I should have grouped these lessons a bit better) but any personal relationship that you involve yourself in should ultimately be satisfying.  In my experience, relationships (whether romantic, friendly, familial, what have you) thrive best on the basis of reciprocity, that is, mutual exchange.  Compromise is necessary for these relationships to work, however, both parties have to be willing to take into consideration what is important to the other.  Do not think that you have to give up an essential part of who you are or tolerate openly hurtful behavior for the sake of pleasing the other person.  A person who cares for you will not subject you to anymore than you deserve and I cannot stress how firmly I believe that.  Be understanding but also know when to call it quits and cut your losses.

14.  There is such a thing as too much of a good thing.
All humans seek happiness.  We want to be happy and we don't want that happiness to go away.  However, we also seek pleasure.  The problem with that is that pleasure is temporal, fleeting and can often be mistaken for true happiness.  Pleasure accompanies happiness but a distinction must be made: pleasure is not happiness.  If you abuse pleasure, you will not be happy.  Two of my greatest loves are sweets and television.  Cupcakes are great but if I eat too many, that's not a good thing for me, right?  Same with television.  If I spend the majority of my free time camped in front of the TV, am I really going to be happy (in a way that lasts)?  Take time to evaluate your excesses.

15.  Perspective is key.
I'm starting to see that many of these lessons are very much interconnected and here's another one for you!  The Dalai Lama states that shifting your perspective is not only a way to achieve happiness but it is also a way to overcome all of life's obstacles.  How you view a problem can affect how you approach it.  For example, looking at things from a wider view will make an apparent problem seem much smaller than it is.  In reverse, focusing on an issue or feeling can help discover solutions that you didn't know existed.  If you're struggling with something, try shifting your perspective.  If anything, a shift in perspective can help you become more aware of the blessings that surround you on a daily basis.

16.  There's power in numbers.
Another oldie but goodie, I saw this lesson acted out in full force through my involvement in St. Augustine Catholic Church of Oakland.  On the first Sunday of Lent, Fr. Mark surprised parishioners by inviting them to take home envelopes with cash.  Their mission was to multiply that gift to help raise funds to build a new dormitory for an orphanage in Kenya.  Ninety days later, at Pentecost, they returned considerably fatter envelopes.  As of June 5, the total raised--over and above the $12,100 distributed in the reverse collection--stood at $60,952.62.  Isn't that incredible!?  Parishioners tested their talents, pooled resources with people they didn't know well, and found themselves spreading the good news of their parish.  The point here is that your excitement has the potential to encourage others to participate.  Extend a hand and you may very well be surprised by the outcome of that invitation.

17.  Soulmates exist--they're just not always romantic.
I think there are certain people you will meet in your lifetime who you connect with more than anyone else.  Call it fate, divine intervention, what have you, you just know that the relationships you have with certain people are not typical.  You understand each other perfectly.  This person may not always be your 'significant other' or someone you connect with on a romantic level--it could be friend, a sibling, a parent, a teacher, whoever--but they will bring out the best in you and you will bring out the best in them.  I had the privilege in the last year to move in with a new roommate who I'm convinced is my kindred spirit.  I can be an idiot or express something in the most convoluted and complicated way but she'll get it and I thank God for bringing us together the way that he did it.  Be thankful for the people you encounter that you feel a connection with and do your best to keep those unions thriving.

18.  All will be well.
I know what you're thinking: it's easier said than done to accept the simple explanation that in the long run everything will turn out okay.  I hate to overuse clich√©s but for the sake of this lesson, I'm going to do it because frankly, I can't think of another way to stress the importance of this realization for me.  I'm sure you've heard the saying before: "Everything will be okay in the end.  If it's not okay, it's not the end."  Take that thought and internalize it.  Think of a difficult situation you've encountered in the past and realize that you got through it and you're standing in a different position now.  All of our struggles seem great when we're passing through them but once you've braved the storm, you will find yourself surprisingly empowered.  Practice resilience to the best of your abilities and have faith that your circumstances will always improve.  Hope will take you much further than your doubts.

19.  It's important from time to time to pause and be appreciative of where you are at this very moment.
Recently I went out for a drive and found myself, almost inexplicably, at a nearby park.  I parked, got out of the car, grabbed my iPod and locked the door.  I wandered over to the track lining the expanse of green grass in the center of the park and with only my music, decided to just walk.  I looked around, saw the assortment of trees, felt the breeze ruffle my hair, saw children running towards the play structure, and you know what, I found myself smiling for no reason other than the fact that I felt I was in the right place at the right time, exactly where I needed to be.  Sometimes it's difficult to see but you are where you are for a reason and there is always something to be gained from the circumstances in which you've found yourself.  Blessings surround you always, just take a moment to count them.  You just might be surprised by the length of your list.

20.  It can be terrifying to confront the parts of yourself that you dislike but it is the first step to lasting change.
I'm realizing that a common vein in this blog entry is the underlying importance of personal evaluation and change.  There's always something to be learned and personal betterment is always within your reach.  As a Catholic, I've been taught about the benefits of the sacrament of Reconciliation, a practice of the Church in which I am called to evaluate my conscience and quite literally confess the negative actions, behaviors and practices that have come to be a part of my way of life.  I'll be honest, Reconciliation is not a sacrament of the Church that I enjoy but I think that's because it calls me to investigate why it is that I am ashamed.  About four months ago, I went to Confession for the first time in over a year and a half and I put it all out on the table.  It was embarrassing and I felt deeply uncomfortable but something inside of me told me I needed to do it.  When I left, I felt completely elated, as if a massive weight had disappeared from my shoulders.  Frankly, I felt empowered and ready to change (I started counseling shortly after this experience).  As a Catholic, this was a helpful exercise for me but even in the secular world, so to speak, coming to terms with the things about yourself that you don't like can be overwhelmingly cathartic and a starting point for your own self-improvement.  It's scary as hell but the benefits are innumerable if done correctly.

I can feel all of the Parks and Recreation fans nodding vigorously with me on this one (and for God's sake, if you haven't started watching Parks at least watch this video so you at least know what I'm talking about!) and I just have to say, I think this lesson is quite possibly my favorite out of all that I've listed so far.  Sometimes the best way to handle tough times is to treat yourself.  You know what, sometimes even when things are good, you should treat yourself!  Think of it as a reward.  Just remember lesson fourteen--even Tom and Donna only practice 'treat yo' self' once annually ("It's the best day of the year!")

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