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Life Lessons

This week’s Friday Five Question is answered a little late. I’ve been traveling, you see. More about that in a bit… the question, which requires a good bit of thinking to actually answer for it is quite difficult for me to put into only five points, or say clearly, comes to us courtesy of my very gracious and wonderful current host, Ritu:

Everybody lives through certain moments in their lives when things go ‘click’ and ideas take a living, breathing shape. Concepts and thoughts which were only words until that moment now become an intrinsic part of one’s internal landscape, altering one’s perspective forever. Sometimes these lessons of life are taught by other people and that is the subject of this week’s question:

Which are the five most important life lessons learnt by you and by whom were you taught the same?

  1. Plan ahead. I have a savage young psychopath named Michael Bear to thank for this. In elementary school I attended judo classes for a year. I hated all that rolling around and grabbing people and heaving them and being heaved about myself. But I apparently managed to learn something, because at some point, out on the schoolground, a bully named Michael Bear attacked me. When he did so, I simply grabbed him and heaved him over my hip—the simplest throw you learn in judo—and stood there in amazement.

    It had worked! It was wonderful! It had even knocked the wind out of him.

    And I just kept standing there, shocked and not sure whether the confrontation was over. So he got up after a few moments and beat the snot out of me. I should have either stomped on his face, or run away. But I hadn’t yet learned to plan ahead.

  2. You can’t always get what you want, thank goodness. Because you don’t actually want most of what you think you want. There was this girl I knew in high school. Hjordis, her name was. That’s said “Yawdis”. I was so crazy about her. Wrote her poems, the awful kind, and called her when I finally had the courage. She dated every interesting guy in our class except me and the gay guy, but she became very close friends with the gay guy and me, and whenever she fought with a boyfriend, she called us up. That hurt, that discouraged me.

    A few years later, I discovered she was a seriously mentally-disturbed druggie whose baby had been taken away from her by the government on account of the neglect she’d subjected it to; Hjordis was by then as nasty as could be, as totally flaked out as possible, I thanked my lucky stars not to be involved with her. I think I can credit a guy named Kelly with this lesson, though in fact, as he was the one who first informed me of the state that Hjordis was in a few years later.

    I’ll come right out and say that this is one of those lessons I find myself continually relearning. For me, this one is probably a lifelong process.

  3. It’s not what you do, it’s why you do it. I remember on Sundays in Truro, Nova Scotia, that my father vaccuumed the hallways in an apartment building on a hill overlooking the trailer court where we lived. I was in kindergarten and the first grade, I think. Dad would bring me along, and I would “help” him. I knew even then that I wasn’t much help, but I was happy to help him. Years later, I think back and imagine myself vaccuuming the hallways in an apartment, for the spare cash to buy things for my kids. I know a lot of people my age who see great indignity in that, but I don’t. I see a profound amount of humility and dignity and love in doing such a menial chore with ones’ kids in mind… and, on top of that, in bringing one or more of the kids so Mum could have some relative quiet for an hour. The time when he needed to do that passed, but I never forgot about it. In some senses I think I learned something of what it is to be not just a father, but also a man, by seeing him adapt to his circumstances and just do what needed to be done for the people who matter to you.
  4. It’s not easy for anyone. There have been times when life has been extremely hard for me, and I’ve lost sight of the fact that, as the Yo La Tengo song goes, “Sometimes it’s hard… I know that it’s that way for everyone…” I think the people who stood by me through those times taught me the most important lesson, which is no matter how some people make you feel as if your life is offtrack, messed up, not going anywhere, a failure, other people don’t see it anywhere near as clearly as you do. Your life always looks much more together to the people around you than it does to you, especially when you’re telling the stories yourself. At the same time, everyone else seems always to look so much more together, doing so much more well than one privately sees himself doing. But I remember many friends, most especially Charlie, reminding me that everyone is scared of fucking up, everyone has a feeling of being lost sometimes, or even often… everyone, everyone, everyone. I didn’t believe him at first, but looking around me, I’ve realized most people around me, once they show a little vulnerability (a little of the truth of their lives) to me, have wildly varying life stories, but that the feelings about those situations are not always so very different. Some people are luckier, or more talented, or more unlucky, or hopeful, or distrustful; some people have less taxing experiences and some have more… but life isn’t a cakewalk for anyone, for, as Charlie once said to me, none of us is that strong, none of us is tough… it’s all just about being patient through the hard bits.
  5. As Sun Hwa recently reminded me, You shouldn’t expect too much from people. I really to tend to expect a lot from people, and it’s a little difficult sometimes. I first learned this lesson at a bookstore where I worked, when a woman told me there was no way Mohandas Gandhi (Who’s that? she asked me) was as important as a historical figure as Priscilla Presley, because she’s never heard of him and, after all, if he was that important she would have heard of him by now. That was the culmination of years of working in retail, working with people who didn’t give enough of a shit to even read books of any kind, watch news on TV, or think beyond their first reaction to something. Sometime in undergrad, and into the beginning of grad school, I began to figure out that such high expectations of others made them uncomfortable, but I also thought of this as a kind of very effective weeding-out technique. But in 2002, living with the roommate I lived with, working with some of the people I had to work with, I learned that having very high expectations of others sometimes does nothing more than give myself headaches. You have to be able to figure out who you should expect crap and stupidity from, before you start expecting anything at all from them.This makes you appreciate the people who are outstanding even more, and makes you take far less personally the crap offered to you on occasion from individuals you run across.

There’s one more lesson I also learn continually, which is: It’s not always your fault. I am the sort of person who learns almost exclusively through his mistakes, and it’s sometimes easy to conflate mistakes with fault. Sometimes my mistakes are bloody well my own fault, that’s for certain. But I too often also tend to, almost by (Catholic-raised?) instinct take a lot of blame, or just take it personally, when people do stupid stuff to me. But I am learning, more and more each year, that it’s much less about me than about those people themselves. I am combining this with #5 above to great effect, especially now when I am happening to meet in my flesh-and-blood life more and more of the cool, nice kinds of people I always seem to meet online.

As usual, you can see the other F5ers under the Friday Five dropdown menu to the right.

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