Life Lesson No. 15: Life Scripts & Could-a, Should-a, Would-a Thinking

I’ve heard that introspection is good for the soul. Last week I spent, as the old joke goes, a few decades plumbing the nooks and crannies inside my head. I wondered which decisions I made over my lifetime brought me to the life-space I currently inhabit. More importantly, how many of those decisions were really my own choice and not borne out of an unwillingness to fight back, to hold firm against the onslaught of someone else’s ideas of what I should do—someone else’s image of who I should be? It’s a sad reality that people often move through their whole lives stepping to the beat of someone else’s drummer. But is that always a bad thing?

I believe it’s a matter of perception. I’ve made a few life-choices that I regret. But which ones could I honestly say made that much difference in who I’ve become?

A friend of mine is a successful psychiatrist who always wanted to be an artist, but who went to school to please her parents (who were also paying the bills). Years later, she was still unable to completely silence that inner artist. As we chatted over hot tea, she said she’d always wondered what her life would have been like had she been allowed to go to Spain and study painting as she so badly wanted to do as a teen. We followed that thread of thought, and brainstormed possible outcomes she’d have faced had she not listened to her parents. For one thing, we agreed her life would have been immensely different. Whereas she currently made a great living as a practitioner for mental health, she would most likely have struggled to make ends meet as an artist—for years. Maybe throughout her whole life. It is the exceedingly rare exception for an artist to sell enough paintings to live the high life—or even cover the cost of living. Most of the time, it’s the people who invested in her art who make money off her labors—and that’s usually after the artist is dead.

We decided my friend’s life-path hadn’t been such a misstep after all. Now she’s attending art classes at UNM. She works her bill-paying job by day, and happily dabs in oils in the evenings.

As for me, a retired educator (having obeyed my dad’s directive that I needed to be a teacher like my mom), I have the time to pursue my writing. Paying my bills AND living my dream. Not a bad combination.

Life Lesson No. 13: Ignore the Audience

For a period of about five years during my mid-thirties, I enjoyed working in a community theater. I sang roles such as Mad Margaret and one of the Three Little Maids from School in a couple of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operettas. And I learned the hard way not to look at the audience, lest I get caught up in someone else’s facial expressions and forget my lines. It pretty much boils down to focus.

I’ve come to believe the same holds true for life in general: one can either follow one’s inner truth, or risk losing it in the face of someone else’s views. And there will always be someone ready and willing to tell the rest of us how we should live.

Someone once said the most important thing in life is to be true to one’s self. I believe that to be one of the few Supreme Truths on this earth. We’re born into a Role (not into a Script, which is the subject of a different Life Lesson), or dealt a specific hand of cards, if you prefer. To do ourselves and the rest of humanity full justice, and in the interests of wasting not one single hour of our allotted time, we must follow our Truth – what some call that still, small, inner voice.

While that may sound like fuzzy, leftwing drek, it isn’t easy to actually do. It takes courage – especially in the face of opposition – to decide against doing something most of humanity is doing simply because most of humanity is doing it.

I’m no philosopher, but the happiest times of my life have been when the decisions I made were in keeping with my inner truth. And my worst living nightmares have been the results of decisions I made that went against it.

Lesson No. 12: Oh Wad That The Giftie Gie Us…

According to a personality inventory quiz I recently took, I’m an introvert. Not altogether surprised about that, since I never really enjoyed meeting new people, and being in a crowd saps my energy. But it did give me a chance to do a bit of introspection. And I figured out something about myself: I often gave people gifts so they’d like me. I’m not talking about family members. I wanted to give them things—wished I could have given them more. I’m talking about people I barely knew, people I worked with, neighbors and people I went to church with. And I often gave people things that cost more than my modest income would comfortably allow.

Realizations: 1. Giving gifts or deferring to someone in hopes it will make that person like you doesn’t work; they’ll just take your flattery/gifts and despise or mistreat you anyway. My mind flashes on the image of a puppy with its tail between its legs, piddling on the floor in an act of submission. 2. Giving overly expensive gifts is in reality a passive-aggressive way to put the receiver in your debt, making them uncomfortably aware that they owe you. Of course, if that’s the intention, give oh give away. But understand that along with feeling beholden, they’ll resent you. 3. While I’ve not had the mixed blessing of falling into this category, giving an overly-expensive gift could be a way to tell the world you’ve arrived, you’re wealthy, you’re relevant. 4. Or perhaps you feel guilty you’re a HAVE, while those around you are HAVE NOTS.

Don’t get me wrong—I still believe it’s better to give than to receive. In fact, I feel stronger than ever about the importance of helping those in need. It’s not just important, it’s something I believe we’ll be called on to answer for. But I’m not discussing altruistic behavior. I’m talking about covert ways to control someone else’s feelings or behavior.

So I’ve decided to try to make my gifts appropriate to the recipient. And I realize just because something costs a lot doesn’t necessarily mean it has value.

Lesson No. 11: Will the Real Center of the Universe Stand Up

I well remember the day I learned I was NOT the center of the universe. Probably one of the most difficult lessons of my childhood.

My 10th birthday was approaching. I was uber-excited at the prospect of getting a gift, and maybe even a birthday cake – two things that were in short supply during that time in my family’s financial condition.

By today’s standards of over-the-top gift-giving, my excitement over a single gift must seem a bit sad. But in a house of seven people, the idea of receiving something that would be all my own was cause for celebration.

At any rate, for several days I must have yammered away non-stop about what my folks were going to give me – begging for clues, offering suggestions. Pop, the beaker of his patience completely emptied, scolded me. Besides commanding me not to say one more word about it (a no-brainer for me, since Pop’s spankings ranked fairly high on the scale of things to be avoided), he said no one owed me a gift. He said gifts were given, not earned. Then he said not only was my onslaught “enough to drive a wooden man crazy,” but that he and Mom were going to teach me a lesson by not giving me anything at all that year.

And they didn’t. No cake. No gift. Not even so much as a spoken or sung Happy Birthday. Pop even commanded my siblings not to mention my birthday. I must admit to being crushed.

Many would frown on Pop’s tactic. I frowned, and still frown on it. But he was a product of his generation – a time when children were seen and not heard. And his effort had the desired effect: I was never again quite sure of getting anything for birthdays. Or for Christmas. And when I did, I was grateful.

Life Lesson No. 10: Sparkles, Bling, & Such

At the time I was a child of about ten, our family would by today’s standards have been considered economically challenged. Poor. Whenever we traveled, Mama brought a loaf of bread, mayonnaise, and bologna for sandwiches. At the time, I thought it was great. Like we were having a picnic. An adventure. But as the saying goes, when the student is ready the teacher will appear.

The summer I was to go into fourth grade, my Pop decided we needed to take a road trip to some of the Civil War battle grounds. The drive from Gallup, New Mexico, took two ten-hour days. We stayed in a motel, a particularly adventurous thing for me, as I’d never before done that. We also ate our supper in a restaurant – another first. My little brother and I were allowed to share an order of fried shrimp – a delicacy I’d only heard about but never tasted. Full of that marvelous repast, we walked out the restaurant and into the evening darkness. As we walked to our car, I spotted something shiny on the parking lot asphalt. Glinting from the reflected light of a street lamp, the thing looked about the size of a quarter, which carried the same weight as pirate treasure in those days of penny candy. I joyously stooped to pick up the glittering prize.

But my fingers did not encounter cold metal. Instead, they slid through a sticky, wet gob of phlegm. I commanded my stomach not to hurl its prize of fried shrimp, wiped my fingers on my skirt, and then slumped to the car – dreams of a paper bag of licorice pipes and candy lipsticks evaporating like ice in the hot sun.

Takeaway? Other than as a life lesson, not all bright and shiny things have value. They may, in fact, be quite toxic. Or ugly. Or both. And sometimes the price of obtaining them is more than they’re worth.

Life Lesson No. 9: Dreams

I don’t mean dreams we have during the night, I mean goals. Life goals.

From the time we’re old enough to listen, we hear people talking about how important it is to our happiness and fulfillment to follow our dreams. Sounds good. But what’s often left out is how that works – the operative verb here being “work.”

Elementary school children are petted and told they can be anything they want to be. Anything. They’re blank slates. They’re smart, talented, gifted. They have everything going for them, etc. So they grow up thinking something wonderful will happen to them along life’s pathway, and they’ll just at some point BECOME what they want to be. Everything will magically flow to them.

Not true in my world. Following my dreams has meant years of schooling beyond high school, years of trial and error jobs, and hundreds of hours spent honing my chosen craft over nearly two decades. It has meant thousands of dollars in tuition, hundreds spent on books and conferences. And I still haven’t achieved my dream.

But another important dream-chasing verb is “persevere.”  So, I do.

Lesson No. 8: Gates

Several of my childhood summers were spent on my grandparents’ ranch in the mountains of New Mexico near Cloudcroft. It was a working ranch, meaning they raised cattle, pigs, chickens, and most of their own feed. My granddad and uncles rounded up the cattle on horseback, and there were always one or two tame horses we grandchildren were allowed to ride. One huge old animal named Banjo was my favorite.

Fences were everywhere on the ranch. Made of barbed wire, they served not only to keep the domestic animals together and close by, but to keep marauding animals out. And every fence had at least one gate. In order to get out the front yard, we had to go through the gate in that fence. There was a gate in the fence around the corral, and a gate in the fence down the hill from the house to the field where the water tank was.

One of the all-time favorite fun things to do on the ranch was to put on old clothes and splash around in that water tank. But as is typical of city kids, one day on the way to the tank we left the gate open, and Banjo got out. By the time Granddad found him, his legs had been badly cut by barbed wire when he tried to jump back over the fence.

Watching Granddad put ointment on the open gashes made me feel like a chainsaw murderer. But it also taught me something about natural consequences that result from our behavior.

It taught me that the people who came before me had insights that I hadn’t yet lived long enough to learn. It taught me to pay more attention to my actions, and to sometimes ask what the end result of a behavior might be. It taught me that there are things in the world that might harm me, so I should be careful who and what I allow behind my fences. But most importantly, it taught me that as I move through life, there are relationships, failures, and even victories better left behind. And I learned to close the gate.

Lesson No. 7: Watch Your Back

During my graduate studies in Psychology, I learned that murdered people are most often killed by someone they know (this still holds true, even considering the sad mass-shootings we’ve sustained recently). Husbands and wives kill and maim each other regularly.

A few years ago, several studies were done in which pairs of friends were recruited to participate in what researchers assured them was a gravely important experiment. One friend was told to press a button that would give a shock to the other when specific questions were asked. The other friend/partner sat behind a screen and was told to scream horrifically when given the signal. Of course, the researchers repeated several times to the Shocker that sending an electrical charge into their friend’s body was for the greater good. And even though some Shockers expressed agitation at hurting their friends, they still allowed themselves to be talked into giving that friend what they assumed to be painful shocks when told it would offer important information to the world. Even though their friends screamed in what the Shocker believed to be great pain, they still flipped that little switch. (The good news is that the wires attached to their friends weren’t actually electrified.) An interesting bit of information was that the researchers measured the levels of electrification the Shockee would have received had the electrodes been connected to electricity, and while some Shockers only gave what they thought to be gentle jolts, others gave levels that would have resulted in injury.

My takeaway? Think long and hard before making yourself completely vulnerable to another human. Human nature being what it is, that person will most likely at some point let you down. Because you never know when your friend will take it into his head that doing or saying something that hurts you is okay. And sometimes people cannot resist throwing your vulnerabilities back in your face.

Of course, some fortunate few will find a life-partner who will keep their secrets, who will refuse to torment them with past failures. They exist. They are that rare thing – a human who can be trusted.

Lesson No. 6: Nobody’s Perfect

In my opinion, the word “Perfect” is much over-used in reference to human beings. Our culture demands that we strive for perfection, even while we accept that no one outside of Jesus Christ has actually been capable of achieving it. And then again, we’re told that practice MAKES perfect. It’s mostly a matter of definition, so here’s mine: human perfection is living the life you were intended to live and being the person you were born to be. Period.

According to Holy Writ, everyone is given at least one gift – GIVEN the gift(s), not allowed to select ones that appeal to us from among many. It’s our responsibility to find our gift, own it, develop it, and use it for good.

If I could have chosen my gift, I would be one of the great music composers who have through the ages stirred our spirits, lightened our darkness, and elevated our hearts in praise to our Creator. So, sometimes being who I’m supposed to be may mean accepting that I’m not who I would rather be.

The old saw that we can do and be anything we want is not always precisely accurate. Some of who we are boils down to aptitude – the hand we’re dealt at birth.

For example, someone with only one arm is most likely not going to become a brain surgeon or fly a fighter jet. But then again, even though the famous pianist Paul Wittgenstein lost his right arm during World War I, he chose not to give up his birthright. He continued to perform after commissioning Ravel to compose a piano concerto solely for the left hand.

As creatures who often pursue the path of least resistance, some may think this gives us a free pass at striving to achieve. Not at all. Some of who we are is based on how hard we’re willing to work at it. No one becomes great at what they do by merely wishing it.

But as long as you’re working toward and practicing at being who and what your gift(s) allow, it follows that (while you may not be exactly where you’d like to be in your relationships, spiritual growth, or even your career), you’re exactly where you need to be right now. It means whatever you’re currently going through is preparing you for your next step – teaching you what you need to know in order to progress.

Meanwhile, we grow impatient. We put pressure on ourselves to be great, or get a move on and become a star. And there may be people around us who, for whatever reason (I’m convinced it’s out of a sense of their own failure to achieve their definition of “greatness”), feel it incumbent upon themselves to either verbally or passive-aggressively define OUR level of perfection. Ignore them. They’re still struggling to find their place.

Life is a process. And part of the joy of living is to explore and make the best of our boundaries. We are, after all, creative beings with an almost limitless ability to learn and become.

As long as you’re doing the best you can, you’re doing what you need to do. Relax. Hang in there, and enjoy the ride.

Life Lesson No. 5: Geographical Amnesia

My dad was pastor at a church in New Mexico during my high school years. We had a fairly good sized youth group, most of whom attended the same high school I did. Our group included cheerleaders, student council members, and other “Popular” kids.

While not a complete outsider, I was not a member of the upper crust IN group. I was too different, came from too conservative a background, didn’t have enough money, was too shy… who knows?

One thing, however, became crystal clear very early on: just because you shared what you thought were wonderful conversations with someone at a church youth activity didn’t mean they’d hang with you, or even know your name while at school. I remember feeling hurt because a cheerleader youth group member wouldn’t even return my “Hi” while walking in the hall between classes.

While this may sound like a whine, it’s not. That experience was a wonderful teacher. It spurred me to search for a person’s inner self, to open myself to friendships with kids who were otherwise invisible.

And it taught me that deep-thinking, intelligent, fun, and life-enriching people may live inside some of the plainest packaging.