We live our lives through lessons, some harder than others, and life has a curious way of teaching us lessons that we would never learn otherwise, bathing us with all-subsuming wisdom. Many of life’s lessons we would rather skip over or fast-forward, but that is exactly what makes life such a terrific teacher.
And as the sun begins to set on my fourth decade and a new dawn arises in the fifth, I took some time to reflect on my many lessons learned while joyfully anticipating the lessons to come — and because I am an imperfect human being, there are plenty of them!
This begs the question: what do life lessons really mean? What do they mean to you, to me, to our collective species?
Dictionaries will tell you that a life lesson is an experience from which useful knowledge or principles can be learned. That sounds about right, as each of our life lessons are unique but share a common thread; they get us closer to realizing who we are, why we are here, and how we can help humanity along its evolutionary path.
And since life lessons play such a paramount role in life, there is a lesson in everything.
“There is divine beauty in learning… To learn means to accept the postulate that life did not begin at my birth. Others have been here before me, and I walk in their footsteps.” — Elie Wiesel
Here are seven lessons to guide, sustain, and enrich our ephemeral lives.
And friends: please share your own life lessons. This is one way we grow, together while on our unique paths.
1. Relationships are what matter.
Relationships are the foundation of a meaningful life. Although life is a single-player game, we are not solitary beings. We depend on others for our survival, both physical and spiritual, and life is simply better when we share our successes and failures with like-minded people.
Positive relationships with others, based on respect, trust, and love, lengthen our lives, make us happier, and even protect us from illness. Having support of our loved ones gives us an emotional safeguard against life’s storms and lets us know we are not alone on our journey.
In fact, a large Swedish study of people ages 75 and over concluded that dementia risk was lowest in those with a variety of satisfying contacts with friends and relatives.
At the end of our days, it’s our connections and relationships to others and the world around us that matters.
2. We don’t always get to say goodbye to loved ones.
I’ve lost several members of my childhood family without ever getting to say goodbye, including my dad, grandfather, grandmother, and two uncles. And if I’ve learned anything from their unexpected earthly departures, it’s that when time’s up, it’s up.
Whether it is preordained or not isn’t important; rather, telling our loved ones how much they mean to us, right now, is what matters. Don’t let this depress you, but rather be a motivator to say the things in your heart.
Take your chance before the window of time disappears.
3. Life is unpredictable.
One minute everything is going exactly as planned and then, out of the blue, your whole world tumbles down. All it takes is one tiny event or moment to change a life forever.
I learned this first hand on a Tuesday evening at 4:30 pm when I heard the crushing words, “Your father died last night.”
Really, we never know what sort of event will happen, and this always reminds me of Baz Luhrmann’s Everybody’s Free (to wear sunscreen) speech where he said:
“Don’t worry about the future; or worry, but know that worrying is as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubblegum. The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that never crossed your worried mind; the kind that blindside you at 4:00 pm on some idle Tuesday.”
This isn’t meant to be morose, but rather to pay service to the fact that although life is unpredictable, worrying doesn’t change anything.
It may feel like we are doing something productive at the time, worrying because we care(!) or worrying to try to change the outcome of a situation, neither of which actually influences life itself.
A more peaceful way to exist is by accepting life and its unpredictable nature.
Easier said than done, right? But all journeys begin with one step, so start right now.
4. Life isn’t always fair.
This can be both frustrating, infuriating and on some level freeing.
Sometimes bad things happen to good people, sometimes we get a break and things momentarily line up for us, sometimes justice is served, or sometimes not.
We all have things happen to us, but maybe those things that we think aren’t fair aren’t happening to us but for us. That doesn’t mean that any part of it is fair nor easy.
Some people are born wealthier than others, or into healthier families. Some people fight for justice like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., only to be cut down by others who oppose justice and equality for all. It’s not fair, is it?
But accepting life as it is (while not pardoning heinous acts), and taking the lessons as they come, can help us to resist the disillusionment that can come with unfairness.
5. Appreciate what you have today.
It can be hard to appreciate those things we take for granted. One way to counteract this is by expressing gratitude and appreciation for what we have right now. I know gratitude is a bit cliche at this point, but it’s mentioned so much because research shows that it works.
And this is based on experience from someone who has gone through crushing health and chronic pain issues.
Every day that I feel good, I have learned to appreciate it in the moment, and store those little nuggets of joy away for when I need them most. That way, the hard days feel less challenging because I know a flare can happen at any time and have learned to appreciate the days where I feel (almost) like my old self.
You don’t need to experience illness to appreciate what you have right now, though. Simply write down three things each day that you appreciate, and when you have a chance, show your appreciation by connecting with someone different from you.
Research suggests that this expands our compassion and awareness and deepens our sense of community — and when we get to know others who don’t have the things that we take for granted, it gives us an even deeper appreciation for what we have.
6. Life is too short to spend on petty grievances.
Someone cut the line in traffic, stole your idea, or judged you unfairly?
While the above examples don’t make us feel great, they also don’t endanger our mortality. There will always be things with which we don’t agree, but the measure of joy in our lives is in how we respond rather than react to injustices.
Learn to simply let it go by refusing to allow turmoil into your inner-world. And know that everyone is fighting their own battle, so try as much as possible to not take things personally.
Choose what is the most important to you, what’s worth fighting for, and let the rest go.
Choose to be peaceful. Choose it time and time again.
“Choose your battles wisely. After all, life isn’t measured by how many times you stood up to fight. It’s not winning battles that makes you happy, but it’s how many times you turned away and chose to look into a better direction. Life is too short to spend it on warring. Fight only the most important ones, let the rest go.”—C. JoyBell C
7. Life often gives us the lessons that we need.
Our fleeting existence in this world and the lessons that we learn are our greatest teachers, leading us on a winding path of self-discovery and infinite potential.
We each come into this world with unique and varying lessons to grasp, be it self-respect, compassion, love, forgiveness, inner peace, kindness, or fairness. Life will certainly test us, but by recognizing the growth and lessons in our challenges, we can emerge wiser. We already have everything that we need.
No, you can’t always get what you want
You can’t always get what you want
You can’t always get what you want
But if you try sometime you find
You get what you need—The Rolling Stones