Originally published in 2012 on the blog: Mixer.
In my time I’ve seen a lot. In my 30 years of life, I’ve seen things that would be traumatic for a few, inspire others, and cause thousands to turn a blind eye. I have said and done things that have created the same results.
30 years is a long time to make a lot of mistakes. There is a saying, “Time heals all wounds.” So far I’ve lived long enough to disagree and short enough to still hope it proves true. I’ve learned that things you do or say have lasting consequences and if you live life recklessly you run the risk of causing permanent damage to those around you.
That being said, 30 years is also a long enough time to learn a few things and in my 30 years, I’ve learned at least 30 valuable lessons that life has taught me. It is my desire to share these with you. They are in no particular order of importance, they just are, please enjoy.
1. True wisdom is as far as the nearest star and the closest you get to the end of your life is the closest you’ll ever get to know true wisdom. That is why, at every turn, every chance you get, you should listen to your elders. Even if in your heart you feel they are wrong, there is wisdom in every sentence and every phrase they impart to you. Learn to listen beyond what is said. You can learn volumes from a simple gesture.
2. Never speak in absolutes. Example: The 1st lesson on this list is by far, my most important one. Therefore, this one is the 2nd most important. I shouldn’t have proclaimed no order of importance. Had I not spoken in absolutes, I would have nothing to regret right now.
3. Don’t try to erase your mistakes. Leave them so you and others may learn from them. These first three lessons are more than just a metaphor.
4. Be skeptical of anyone who chooses not to listen to music. As Langston Hughes famously said:
Life is for the living.
Death is for the dead.
Let life be like music.
And death a note unsaid.
5. Be skeptical of anyone who chooses not to read. And for those who can’t, take the time to teach them.
6. Save your money, but don’t be cheap. Tip well and often, even when it feels undeserved. Don’t put a price on people or their efforts. Give to your friends when they need and always give to needy elderly people. Let life judge them if they are being dishonest. It isn’t your place to do that. In our society, where we disparage our senior citizens and veterans instead of helping them, they’ve earned your dollar and fifteen cents, you can believe that.
7. Nothing material is worth fighting for. Not wallets, not purses, not jewelry, and not your bosses money. However, ideas are worth fighting for, as is justice. So pick your battles wisely.
8. Listen to promises but wait for fulfillment. Everyone deserves the benefit of the doubt, but actions deafen words.
9. Know that sexual and racial inequality is far from over. Despite what textbooks and media outlets say, the civil rights movement did not begin with MLK, Jr. and end with Obama. Women’s equality didn’t begin with their right to vote and end with their right to hold the same jobs as men. Our public policy still considers black people as 2/5ths of a person, women 1/2 of a person, and Indigenous Peoples no person at all. Also, the fact that LGBTQ2 folks weren’t even close enough to the forefront of my mind for me to include them in the previous sentence saddens me the most. If all the aforementioned is true, then it seems our public policy on LGBTQ2 people is that they are -1 person.
10. Creative talent is not a Sword in the Stone. There is no truth to the commonly held belief that only gifted people can be artists. When I was young I liked to draw. I wasn’t wonderful at it, mediocre at best, but I thought that was “my talent” so I envisioned myself as an architect. But I soon learned I hated rulers and squares, perfect circles, and right angles. I liked ovals, squiggly lines, and arrows. Then at the age of 17, I bought a bass guitar on a whim. I took it home and played it constantly. I taught myself to read music by ear and then I taught myself to write songs. Then I realized I loved to write. I also realized I loved to film things even before all of this. I learned that what I had been told all my life about “artistic people” or “talented people” was a farce. A person with “remarkable talent” is just someone who had an idea and ran towards it instead of running away from it. Dreams are goals you face and climb towards, nothing more nothing less. I will not deny that people can do remarkable things, but nothing comes naturally. Everything is a struggle for the brain, for the hands and fingers, and feet. It takes practice. It takes sweat to perfect an idea or a “best shot.” This is not to be taken as a gloat if that’s how it seems, then I haven’t made my point. This is to say, I too thought that talent was some sort of gift from good genes or a deity. I just learned it isn’t. If anything it is a “gift” from our ancestors. Not through DNA but through our subconscious, and since we each have hundreds to thousands of ancestors, consider your “gifts” or “talents” to be infinite possibilities.
11. Counseling and/or therapy is not for “sissies” or “rich folk.” Despite what you were told by your macho friends or blue-collar family members, counseling is a valuable source of confiding in and opening up yourself up to feel and it will almost always fail to be validated by the aforementioned people in your life. Don’t devalue the importance of a kind ear and a reassuring voice. Not everyone gets this from a parent or sibling growing up, and if you know you haven’t, regardless of how “happy” you may be, seek counseling.
12. Significant Others are not therapists. Men who are raised with absent ears and nay-saying voices rarely seem to understand this lesson. In your relationship, you are welcome to share, but a relationship is not a trojan horse to lay all of your emotional baggage at your better half’s feet. On that note, best friends are great places to lay these on. They won’t leave you for them and if they do, then they aren’t your best friends. These people know you even when you’ve forgotten who you are. If you don’t feel comfortable doing this with your best friends, then you’re probably a shitty best friend. Don’t fret, you can solve this in two easy steps:
- Start being more open with your closest friends. -and-
- Listen and put a valid effort into getting to know them better.
13. Travel often. See the world but not just from a plane or a train. Walk and bike through neighborhoods. Visit places in your own country that you’ve never seen before and when you travel, be respectful of every block, every home, and every natural landscape you walk into. There’s a saying I was always told growing up:
“Portate bien, estas en casa ajena.”
Loosely translated this means,
“Act right, you’re in someone else’s home.”
I try to keep it with me wherever I go and at times it shames me to admit I have forgotten it.
14. Be thrifty. Do as much as you can for yourself on a shoestring budget. Don’t go into debt filling yourself with empty things. Look for bargains and second-hand goods whenever you feel you need something new. But remember, not every bargain is worth bringing home.
15. Accept help when it’s offered out of kindness. Don’t accept it when you suspect someone is being disingenuous.
16. It’s okay to make people cry. Don’t be afraid of being honest or blunt with your friends. When you’re straightforward with someone, you can earn their trust. Flattery and lying are worse than telling them the awful truth. It cheats them out of learning something about themselves they didn’t already know.
17. Laugh more than you cry and make others laugh more than you make them cry.
18. Don’t believe your own bullshit. Tricksters and pranks have been a part of most people’s mythos and cultures since the dawn of time. Comedy is ingrained into our psyche as is sarcasm and exaggeration, just don’t believe your own tricks and ALWAYS come clean after the punch-line. Don’t live sarcastically. A good rule of thumb is for every sarcastic joke or prank you pull on someone, you owe them two moments of open honesty. Remember: Trust is paramount in every relationship. Also, try not to use the term, “a good rule of thumb”…it’s a bad term.
19. Don’t be afraid to hug people. It means more than you think. Physical contact creates a trusting bond between two people. I used to shy away from hugs until I realized their value. On that note, don’t hug people to be falsely inviting. This is almost worse than refusing a hug from someone you care about.
20. Always apologize with sincerity. Never let bygones be bygones. Remember your wrongs. Humble yourself as often as you can. Let life and people humble you. This has always been easier said than done for me, but it stands at the front of my mind every day. When you look back at life it’s important to remember the times where life’s events truly humbled you. A wrongful accusation to a trusted friend, hurting someone deeply, being told you have wronged anyone, losing lots of money, being homeless, losing a friend, these are all examples of life telling you to lower your head. If you can remember these moments of feeling at your lowest, then you should do your best to never return there again. It is what you do after your low points that gets you to your highs. These humble moments, in essence, shape who you are as a global citizen. You can forget them and pretend to be great, or you can remember them as often as possible and truly be.
When it comes to life lessons learned, my brain thinks of the ones I’ve had more practice with. The previous lessons, with a few exceptions, were some that I have made a pretty good effort at following daily. Thus, it is only natural that the last ten lessons on this list will be the most difficult to share with the world for they are the ones that have been harder for me to learn. With that, I start this list with a lesson that further exemplifies my point.
21. Learning is an eternal process. In the Oxford American dictionary, the word learn has at least 3 definitions used to describe it.
- The acquirement of knowledge or to become competent in.
- To memorize. -and-
- To discover or become aware of.
Let me be clear that when I speak of learning these lessons I mean the latter. These lessons I’ve posted are discoveries and in NO way have I memorized or become competent in any of them. To me, they require infinite practice and I may very well never become proficient at them but I still hope I do. Someday, at the end of my life, I want to look back and see how far I’ve come and hopefully, I’ll die with a smile. In fact, I postulate that the definition of constant discovery is truly what learning is. For example, when I play guitar I sound pretty good but, then I hear Hendrix and I realize I have so much more to learn. The same happens when I read a book or watch a movie for the first time, then a second, then a third and I realize there is always something new I hadn’t seen before, a different layer to my once “proficient” knowledge of the story. Learning is a lifelong journey so, take that into account when you learn a lesson.
22. Learn to live and love independently. Many of us will never know what it’s like to be alone and find enjoyment in it. When I was young I loved getting lost. I avoided walking with my family on purpose. My parents and siblings viewed this as stubbornness or rebellion. I, on the other hand, viewed it as exploration. When I disappeared I felt I was at my best. I hid in trees in parks and watched people walk by looking for me, feeling like I could stay there forever. I spent hours in my closet, sitting beneath pant legs and closing my eyes till they felt like jungle vines. I loved being alone. I loved being with friends and family too, but alone was a space shuttle to my subconscious. Alone was investigating items in the grocery store that I never knew existed. It was talking to chipmunks and watching crows gather to laugh at our jokes. Alone was sitting in a bar by myself and listening to the stories people said. Stories I would have never heard had I brought a friend so we could tell our own. Learning to find comfort in being alone anywhere is something I recommend to anyone who hasn’t found the sweet spot between nervously glancing around the room to see if anyone is judging you and sitting back to watch the world pass you by.
23. Don’t care out of selfishness. I firmly believe that a life lived loving selflessly has to be a good one. Sure, feed yourself things that make you feel good but don’t suppose to care for someone other than yourself for any other reason than to make THEM feel good. If you find someone who would like to do the same for you then, perfect. Otherwise, entering any caring relationship (other than a professional one) with the question: “What am I getting out of this?” is the wrong foot forward. The question could instead be, “What can I offer this person?” and onward from there. I like dogs, but for years I didn’t have one. Why? I never felt that I could truly dedicate my time and money to taking care of one. I wanted a pup so bad. My dream dog was a Siberian Husky but alas, I knew I couldn’t be a good caretaker to any pet so I didn’t get one. Then one day someone I knew couldn’t care for their dog anymore and in an effort to keep it from going to a shelter I offered to take it in. I struggled with it because the dog was old and had anxiety issues but he is much better than before. Sometimes I shudder to think what could have happened had I not seen past my future Siberian Husky and decided to take care of such a crazy mutt. The same may be said for raising a child, but that’s something I don’t know much about. I only hope that someday if I decide to have a child it is with the same question in mind, “What can I offer this child (and the world)?” not, “What can this child offer me?”
24. Fight addictions…even the “good” ones. This should go without saying, but there are two types of addictions I notice in myself and the world around me. There are the ones we’ve been told by society are bad like, drugs, gambling, sex, and alcohol. Then there are the ones we’ve been told are good like, church, medications, diets, and work. Much more can be on either list but my purpose isn’t to list the addictions it’s just to explain why good and bad are in the same lesson. I’ve encountered addictions on both sides of the coin and I have to say replacing bad addictions with good ones did not work for me. Sometimes it’s easier for the “good” addictions to sneak past people than it is for the bad ones. I was raised in a family where God was an addiction. He was always first, or what he wanted was anyway. Who knew what he wanted? The pastor, the church, the Bible, my parents, me? I’m not trying to say God is bad, I’m just trying to explain that just because an addiction comes from a good place doesn’t make it good. It’s an addiction. When one puts something before a loved one, significant other, or oneself, one must ask oneself: “Why am I choosing this?” it may be time to give yourself a break. Religion is an easy scapegoat so I’ll try another example, how about tofu? It isn’t bad but eating just tofu every night can’t be good for you. Exercise may be good, but giving your body a break from time to time is also important. Relationships are great and working on them everyday is important but don’t forget yourself, lest you become the person who cares about everyone else but his or herself. This is just as bad as living only for yourself and telling everyone else to “screw off.” Moderation isn’t just an excuse to do the things you “shouldn’t do,” it’s a challenge to learn how you can control wanton desires and things you “should do.” It grants you permission to have more than one side.
25. Learn to mend broken relationships. Don’t force this one but give it a try when you’re ready.
26. Learn to let some things go. This one is one of the hardest for me. This lesson and the previous one almost go hand in hand, but they aren’t the same. Sometimes one can happen without the other. However, I highly recommend trying this one first. I haven’t done it often but I hope to do it much more because when I have, I have felt pounds upon pounds of pressure lifted from my shoulders. To be clear, in my opinion, letting things go does not mean forgetting about them it just means setting them down.
27. Stand for something. No matter what it is. You want to impeach Obama? Go ahead, stand up for it. Canvas the streets. Do your thing. You want to make immigrant students legal residents so they can get jobs once they graduate? Pound the pavement with your feet and march, baby. I don’t care if it’s singing love songs in a seedy bar in Bakersfield, California. Stand for something. This world was not made to sit down and watch TV in. It was not made to travel from your cubicle to your bedroom. It was made by and for dreamers. It was made for the struggle. It started with monkeys and bacteria. Or perhaps you think it started from a miracle. No matter what you believe, it was once dark around here and then things started to grow. People started to grow. We grew thumbs, we grew minds, and we grew smarter. We improved every year and we learned more and more about this world. We learned sometimes we suck at things and sometimes we don’t. We learned how to be mean and how to be nice. We learned how to build things to benefit the world and damage it. The people who history will remember are the ones whose story someone will tell. They are the people who stood for something and left a legacy behind them. They may die with nothing but the clothes on their backs but they left behind a story and that is only because they stood for something. Let me explain…
I met Bob in a bar in Portland, OR. Yes, he is a real person and yes his name really was Bob. Bob sat next to me while I was practicing lesson 22. He leaned in towards me while I sipped on some whiskey and patiently waited for me to finish.
“How old’ you?” he asked me.
“I’m 24,” I told him.
“24,” he chuckled, “I thought you were much younger.”
“How much younger?” I asked him.
“Too young for this bar,” Bob laughed. I joined him. Bob introduced himself and I returned the gesture. Then, he proceeded to tell me about fighting in Vietnam. He said he was proud to fight in that war. He told me, he didn’t agree with everyone who said we shouldn’t have gone and he was sad so many came home to jeers.
“I didn’t,” he said, “I came back to town and got a good job at the mill.” Bob worked his fingers to the bone while he raised a family, but Bob’s wife left him when the mill closed down. Bob became homeless and his son died “from drugs,” as Bob put it. I was sad to hear his story. I bought him a drink. He thanked me. We sipped simultaneously. I wanted to ask him questions but to be honest, I was afraid his story would further depress me. Bob sensed the silence from my end and he broke it by saying the following, “Ask me why I ain’t sad.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Cause I love my family and my country and if they’d let me I’d fight for ’em again.” I nodded and clanged my glass against Bob’s before another sip. Ask me why Bob’s story no longer makes me sad.
Winona was a Lakota woman I also met in a bar, but she was not drinking. She said, “I only come here to play the slot machine.”
I bought her a coke. Winona spoke to me while she waited for “her” machine to become available. “I’m a singer,” she told me.
“What kind of music?” I asked.
“Country music.” Winona sang a bit of a Hank Williams song that I didn’t recognize, cause I don’t know much Hank Williams, and I applauded her when she finished. She bowed. She told me about all the places she had sung at and I was very impressed. Winona didn’t chat long because her machine freed up, but I remember something about her that I’ll never forget. Even though she was missing most of her teeth and didn’t drink a drop of liquor, she never stopped smiling. Ask me why she wasn’t sad.
28. Try to listen more than you speak. I am not good at putting this lesson into practice, but that doesn’t mean I don’t think about it every time I rant or talk to people. I hate that I am so bad at this one but I know it’s the way I should try to be and so it is one of the most important lessons I try to remember everyday. I only hope I may show signs of improvement in this area sooner than later.
29. Try your best to be a better person. In everything you do and everything you say, try your best to improve. If you think you are who you want to be, good job. I hope that works for you. For the rest of us, we’ll keep trying. Someone once asked me if I believed in God and I replied, “kind of.”
This person pestered and pestered me, “You can’t ‘kind of’ believe in God,” they said, “You either do or you don’t.”
I explained to them that while I don’t believe in a God, or a supreme being that formed the stars and planets and made us from clay, I do believe in an ultimate example of what I can be as a human if I worked towards it. This is a “God” in the sense that it is the version of me I wish I was. The version I believe I can be if only I tried. This is me who practices what he preaches and learns valuable life lessons in an eternal effort to be the best person he could possibly be. The old sage full of wisdom I hope to be someday is my God. He may not have created the world, but he hopes to create a better me and if I’m lucky the world may someday benefit.
30. Lather. Rinse. Repeat. Seriously, it works.