“I used to think that how I looked was the most important thing in the world. But at this point in my life, I’ve lived enough to know what really matters, and that’s not it. There is a freedom in knowing what really matters in life.”
Over a sweltering summer vacation years ago, a wise relative shared this with me after I lamented the sad state of my hair while slathering aloe vera on yet another beach sunburn. I’ve never forgotten those words; the peaceful expression on her face; or the jealousy those words invoked deep inside me. I burned for that freedom, and I wondered what did really matter if this wasn’t it?
As I sat awkwardly tracing the many freckles on my arms (at least the ones I could see amidst my poor burnt skin), I wondered what it would feel like to just look the way that felt best to me; to act the way that felt most authentic; and to know the difference between what truly mattered in my life and what was fluff that would soon disappear like dandelion seeds scattered in the wind. I was living in those awkward teen years where every decision feels so dramatic, big, and utterly important. It was like I was up on this high stage under a blistering hot spotlight, and everyone around me was staring and just waiting to see if I made any mistakes. And I was pretty good at mistakes during those years.
So, I took cautious, mincing steps toward what I wanted balanced with a veneer of polished steps toward what I thought I should want, and the end result was a lot of confusion with not a lot of total progress. Oh, and I had to appear to not care too much about any of it while internally I cared way too much about all of it! Now doesn’t that sound a fun way to go through life? Sign me up! No, wait…don’t. I already lived that, and it was frustrating.
But the thing I didn’t realize during all those years is that most everyone else feels the same harsh spotlight and urgency in themselves, and so they’re so busy looking at (and criticizing) themselves that they aren’t really even doing more than glancing at me. If you don’t believe me, think about yourself at that age. Maybe you were more enlightened than me growing up but if not, weren’t you a lot more focused on looking in the mirror than seeing who and what was around you (except maybe to compare yourself to them)? The struggle was real.
For most of us, though, one of the very best things about moving through the years into mid-life is this: Your perspective shifts from focusing on yourself to figuring out what is important to you and pursuing that – be it faith; family; service to others. It’s like you wake up one day and realize that how you’ve been doing things isn’t working or it doesn’t feel like who you are anymore! You suddenly turn off your own spotlight and grab a flashlight to see what else is going on around you and how you can fit into that in ways that don’t tear you down inside, but build you and others up. And it feels pretty amazing!
Of course, not everyone grows out of the “24 hour me and all me” stage of life; we can all name people in our own lives who seem stuck in this perpetual cycle of mirror-gazing. I bet if you could really gauge their happiness, that you’d find that most are pretty miserable. These people are pretty easy to spot, because they are stuck up on that stage of their own making, and they are too busy looking at themselves to even notice you. What is kind of expected of young people as they find their way in early adulthood is not healthy to pursue as a “mature” adult.
As I’ve moved toward this place in my life where I feel more peaceful with who I am than ever before, here’s what I’ve worked hard at in order to “OWN” my voice and place in this world:
1) Observe – Become a student in your life – seek to find similarities with others and celebrate the unique aspects of your personality; similarities will help you create connection, friendship, and a feeling of belonging to a “tribe”, while uniqueness helps you figure out what gifts you have to share with others (maybe it’s a particular skill set or personality trait – whatever it is, celebrate and share it – the world needs more “you” – let others be themselves and give them the gift of you);
2) Welcome – Radical self-acceptance is not something we’re very good at by nature, but at some point, we have to look at ourselves externally and internally and celebrate that we’ve fought, survived, and thrived in our lives; “I’m still here!” is a great rallying cry as we look at ourselves from a place of appreciation rather than condemnation; if you want to work on yourself (self-improvement), do it, but know that you are good and worthy just as you are right now, and welcoming signs of a life lived is vital if we want to end the war of self-criticism – it’s not easy, but it’s worth it;
3) Navigate – Now that you’ve realized you’re just fine with who you are, it’s time to live from that position of grace, so you accept imperfections and extend grace – both to yourself and others. After all, what good is it if we accept ourselves, but hold others to a much higher standard (or vice versa)? We navigate through the world realizing that we’re all on this same path together, and if we choose to observe ourselves and others from a place of connection and service; and if we welcome life’s changes with as much poise as we can muster; we can experience that same freedom to just be ourselves and be comfortable with who we are (and aren’t).
I know this process is far more complicated than following three steps to living a completely new and free life, but this is truly the bare bones of how I’m approaching my life these days, and it has given me the biggest taste of true freedom I’ve ever experienced. I’m not perfect at it; in fact, I’m still working on it every day, so I’m right there in the mud with you slogging through my “stuff” toward the place where life gets sweeter. But I can see that place, and I’ve felt that peace and freedom enough to keep going, and I hope this encourages you to aggressively pursue that freedom.