This week marks 5 years since I sold my house and moved to my own flat, to officially begin what would be the next chapter in my story.
During these intervening years, I completed a master’s degree; finalized my divorce; learnt a new meaning of love; added a few significant friends; drifted from others that didn’t quite fit anymore; travelled on three continents, to myriad countries and experienced new worlds; got laid off; found a new job in a company that uses technology to improve peoples’ lives; climbed mountains; saw a ghost pipefish; paid 60 mortgage payments myself; spent holidays alone; ran three road races; experienced the best birthday of my adult life; screamed and cried and spoke from my heart; had great sex; had mediocre sex; been abstinent; started a blog; took thousands of photos. I wrote a book.
If I look back, I wonder how I fit it all in… I simultaneously wonder why I didn’t do more. And in doing and living and breathing for these past five years, here are 5 things I’ve learnt:
1. It’s all temporary
Life, love, friends, pets, ecstasy, pain, fame, passion, boredom, elation, sadness… they are fleeting. We add value and credence to a thing the more time we spend on it. If we revel in the beauty of a moment, celebrate the good times with the knowledge that the immediacy of everything passes, we can live with the resonant pleasant-ness in us, even if it’s not there in front of us. We need to appreciate the current moment, value what we have in the present instead of caving to this culture of wanting more and needing the next thing before even experiencing what we’ve got right in front of us to its fullest. By looking for the next gratifying thing before even finishing what’s in progress, we’re selling our current experiences, our present moments, short.
That we carry around small memory vaults in our pockets is amazing…Photos and videos freeze a snapshot in time. They capture that small smile on a friend’s face, that look of surprise as the wave hits, the smouldering eyes of a lover even if he’s 4000 miles away. They help us know it’s still out there, even if it’s not right in front of us in this exact moment. If we acknowledge but don’t dwell on that which keeps us low and sad and feeling less-than, calling up these images helps push the sad and bad and dark places farther away. The ghosts are there, but you can choose whether you want to let them in.
2. Nobody is going to complete us
We are in others’ lives (and they in ours), not as pieces of a whole, but as something like fittings that help us achieve greater things, that help us see our best selves when a mirror is cloudy, that help us be better humans or learn more or create amazing things. Others make us better individuals, even as they are separate.
We sometimes attach to people that make us feel good. But the feeling is temporary (see point 1). It is a lot of work to try to be your best self on your own. It’s hard to be your own cheerleader all the time. These past few years, I’ve been through many days of doubt and self-loathing and spent too much time staring into a void thinking, “now what” or “what’s the point?”
By nature, we, as “selves”, have a lot of work to do on our own. It’s hard finding peace with who we are, understanding that we all are works in progress, accepting that we’re perfect in our imperfection (cliché intended). There is just this: some days are going to be easier than others. It’s sometimes a challenge to drag oneself through gray, sad days, knowing yesterday was much better. Others, significant or otherwise, help us get through those days. The work is in getting through the days, in our own bumpy, creaky, imperfect skins, knowing there are those out there who do cheer us on even if we can’t hear them, who will wipe our tears if we deign call, who will give us a leg up when the first rung of the ladder seems so dauntingly high this day; trusting that if we let those people into our hearts, they will come through when we need it. We also must do the same for others or the cycle is not complete.
Politics aside, I was fortunate enough to be at a company event last week where Colin Powell spoke. He said, “you are the product of everyone who passes through your life.” I would add that it is incumbent upon us to realise that we are that to others as well.
3. Being solo is not the same thing as being lonely
Being on your own is frightening. It is also the most empowering feeling on the planet. I. Did. This. is not to be experienced lightly.
A couple of years ago I travelled to India on my own. It was the longest solo flight I’ve ever taken. It was the farthest from home I’ve ever been. It was the most foreign of foreign lands I’ve ever seen. It was the most awe-inspiring and liberating experience I’ve ever had. Not only because it’s beautiful. Not only because of its inherent magic. Not only because it’s a view into a quality of life in which I cannot imagine living. I experienced this empowerment in being in control of what happens, in being the one steering this adventure, in being an observer and a foreigner in a very strange land, and in the weight of responsibility in dealing with what might happen, because anything could. I made the plans, comfortable in my decisions, letting adventure rule. Solo travel forces you to answer your own questions; it forces you to observe where your comfort zones lie; it forces you to contemplate what makes you happy.
When I reach the summit of a mountain or I get to the endpoint after a hard go at it, there’s this immensely personal celebration in my head, “I. Did. This.”
When I eat dinner alone, it’s true that it’s usually more about sustenance than entertainment. But when I get the time, I make a nice meal. It’s sometimes a celebration of an achievement or sometimes merely the culmination of a very nice day by the ocean.
Being solo, to me, is emboldening. I worked hard to learn what I needed to get a job that enables me to afford a nice flat in a beautiful city, close to the things I appreciate most: the ocean, the woods, restaurants and culture, my yoga studio… I’ve got the flexibility to make plans to go out or stay in and write until 2 in the morning. Sure, I get lonely, but I also realise that it is part of the bigger picture. It’s part of being human. It means that my heart is working as intended.
I think it’s this: being alone is about being comfortable with who you are, with looking at your life and putting in place those things you think might need to change. Loneliness, maybe, is love that wants somewhere to go. Not unlike grief, I guess, it’s a longing for love that isn’t here at present, coupled with a fear of being vulnerable or hurt. I try to think of loneliness as a sort of gratitude for having these souls in my life who make me feel quite good when they’re present; a reminder not to take love for granted. Maybe it could be just that simple.
4. We’re part of something so much greater than our little egos
When you think about it, we are merely individual animals that have evolved from stardust and muck to swimming and crawling critters to higher order mammals, here to achieve who knows what in the grand scheme of things.
When I go scuba diving and look out into the deep blue ocean, I see how small I am in comparison with Everything else out there. When I lie in a field at night and look up at the stars in our galaxy, and know that science has found billions of other galaxies, my significance is put into perspective. We get so attached to the “I-ness” and the “thing-ness” of being, that we lose sight of the individual flowers and small daily magic all around.
What I’ve learnt in these past few years is that always looking to achieve and strive and get to the next mile marker or lightpost is the norm in our society but doesn’t have to be. That longing for a bigger thing or a fancier gadget or a larger toy is a short-lived reward. Because our society programs us to consume, we stop seeing those small things of wonder right in front of our eyes. We look outside of ourselves for validation of our spectacular-ness.
The truth is that we are merely little specks of sand on a beach that is one of tens of thousands of beaches on a planet that is one of 9 in a solar system that is one of umpteen billion in a larger Multiverse. And the Universe simply Does. Not. Care. if or that we have the newest iThing or the fanciest clothes or the largest house on the block.
5. Things work out… just not always the way we think they will
We all are living our own stories. We have opportunities, paths, choices and too many options. I’ve always been guided by the simple premise that things work out, just not always in the way we expect. We live in an evolving Universe alongside continually changing humans with their own stories to play out.
These past few years, I’ve been guided by yogic principles, centuries-old wisdom that teaches the simplicity of living in an overly-complicated world. There is a concept called aparigraha. It’s about not getting attached to the shoulds, not getting glued to the outcomes that we fixate upon, not getting attached to the stuff that accumulates in our lives. It reminds us to release what does not serve or what keeps us small. Things work out because they must; and aparigraha is about the path rather than the result. It helps us take stock of the present whilst looking forward to the future, riding the waves of change as they well up along the journey. It’s about paying attention to the little things in front of us. And it’s about reflecting upon, but not being attached to, that snapshot from the past or to a preordained vision of the future.
Things evolve whether we want them to or not. These past years, I’ve learnt to not get attached to the way things should be but rather enjoy the ride, pack snacks and plan for detours. That sometimes getting lost takes you on an unexpected adventure. That two weeks and nothing of consequence to do over the holidays are maybe better spent in a treehouse on an island even if the plane ticket is twice what it would be two weeks later. That sometimes the stories in our heads move faster than in real life, and we have to slow down to participate in the present. That we need to appreciate what we have so we don’t take for granted those who mean so much and who contribute daily to our sanity.
So we know things come and go, and we know deep down that everything is temporary. These past few years, I’ve learnt that while scary and daunting, vulnerability is empowering. Speaking truth and communicating openly and honestly is liberating. Taking risk and doing the unexpected is frightening but also immeasurably fun. What we have is only today. If we wait to say things, they may be left unsaid. If we wait to make change, it may be too late. If we put off acting until later, we may never experience some great joy or accomplishment. It’s ok to fail; and though sometimes intimidating, it’s kinda cool to just try.
Happy anniversary to me.
If you liked this story, please click the little 💚. It shares these words with those who might not otherwise see them and it makes me happy to know I’ve made a small impact on your day. Thank you!