Wisdom (Such as It Is)

“It took me a long time not to judge myself through someone else’s eyes.”
-Sally Field


I am who I am.
Nobody said you had to like it.
~~ Unknown


So I just had my 40th birthday, and my friend Michelle asked if I had any wisdom to share. I just shrugged my shoulders at the time, not feeling very wise. But my friend is in her 20s and says that she feels like “she doesn’t know what she’s doing.” (Forget that she’s likely the most intelligent, diligent, mature 20-something person I know.) Maybe her realization that she doesn’t know what to do is a sign of maturity and intelligence.

I’ve been thinking about her question and about the things I’ve learned. I don’t know if I would call it wisdom, but it’s more like a series of lessons that I’m still learning as I grow up and older. The two quotes above, which I just stole from other people’s status updates on Facebook, sum it up pretty well. So much for “my” wisdom. But let me expand.

Don’t wait for a sign. No one else is going to tell you what’s in your heart or what will make you truly happy. But we’ve been taught (most of us) to look for outer approval and acceptance as a sign that we’re doing the right thing. This way of being in the world keeps us at peace with a society run by the status quo. Get along. Be nice. Get all As. Be the best.

But the best what? A nice what? Get along with whom? A bunch of people you don’t like anyway?

I guess my wisdom comes from knowing I can do all the things people say not to do and survive it. I left a well-paid, soul-killing job so I could have space to figure out what I wanted to do with myself. My husband encouraged me, but very few others did. Who could blame them? It made things a lot harder in a lot of ways. We lost a full-time salary, and I had no plan, no idea what was next for me. I walked dogs and waited tables and tried painting and a little writing and mostly banged my head against the wall. My in-laws frowned on it, wanted me to stay a technical writer and become a Baptist and come to church every Sunday, which made my relationship with them very strained. My own father worried that I was joining a cult. He made fun of my artistic explorations. Plus, I was used to being financially independent. Now I had to ask for my allowance every week, like a kid. It was NOT the easiest or maybe the “wisest” choice. But it led me, eventually, to graduate school and motherhood and a very fulfilling life. I had no idea it would, at the time. I just had to trust my gut.

I went on a three-month cross-country trip by myself. It cost ten thousand dollars. For half the cost, I cashed in part of my 401K. For the other half, I went into credit card debt. Not very wise by most standards, even my own, but I don’t regret it at all. It was worth every penny. It was worth the hours of driving, the sore shoulders, the depleted bank account. I didn’t worry about how it was going to happen. I just knew I had to do it.

I went to healing school for five years. My father, as I mentioned, thought I was joining a cult. It was a four-hour drive into the urban wilds of northern New Jersey four to five times a year, to stay at an expensive hotel and learn Integrated Kabbalistic Healing from a Buddhist Jew. The tuition was so expensive, we used our home equity line to pay for it. It sounded crazy, but I had to go. That class, and the friends I made in that class, opened my heart and healed me in ways I can’t even articulate, and I’m endlessly thankful for the experience.

All of these decisions came after my mother’s death. A big realization I had as we watched her die of cancer is that none of us has enough time. None of us. A hundred years is not enough, and we’re lucky if we last that long. There’s just no time to waste fretting about what other people will think or how much something will cost. If you really, really know in your heart what you want, you have to follow it. And no one is going to congratulate you for coloring outside the lines. For most people, that’s too scary. The path of least resistance is a road to hell, paved with the best intentions of staying safe.

But we’re not safe. Not in the way we want to be. On my fortieth birthday, I had a wonderful evening of delicious food and laughter and good friends. Twenty-four hours later, I was puking my guts out on the white linoleum of the ER lobby floor. Maybe it’s a kidney stone. Maybe it’s a stomach bug. I don’t know. But you know what? You never know. Nobody likes to think of 9/11, but one reason why is that those terrible events reminded us that we have no guarantee on tomorrow. None of us does. You can play it safe your whole life, socking money away in savings, staying at the same job for forty years to get a good retirement, get married to the one who feels secure but who doesn’t make you laugh. Then a plane flies into your office building, and you’re just another part of the tragedy.

I’m not making light of the suffering. Quite the opposite. We do suffer. We will suffer. We will lose the people we love, and we will get sick, and we will lose things dear to us, and we will die. Being human is not for the faint of heart. So don’t waste time on people (or jobs or worries) that make you hold your breath. Get out there and fill your lungs. While you can.

That, for what it’s worth, is my wisdom.


2 responses

  1. See? You are so wise. 🙂 Love this, and it’s something I need reminding of all the time. I feel like sometimes I get it. (I decide I need to go to San Francisco to be alone and to write and to reconnect spiritually, and I do, and it’s perfect.) And then, sometimes I don’t. (I worry too much. I’m a tightwad.) Thank you for writing this–it’s something I needed to hear!

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