Words I Live By
Have you ever been asked how you prefer to learn? I remember my elementary school teachers talking about visual, auditory, or kinesthetic learners, with the assumption being that each of us learns differently, and that by tailoring their approach to a student’s individual style, teachers could enhance retention efforts.
Limited to those three options, I identified most as being a visual learner. But truthfully, I’ve always learned best through reading books and consuming other people’s words.
For instance, in university, I hoarded quotes. There was a sticky notes app on my old MacBook that would often crash upon launching as it contained so many entries. I’d also collect pages upon pages of my own writing, artfully scribbled into lyrics or sentences I didn’t want to forget. I longed for pieces of prose that illuminated how I felt, and relied on these phrases to translate my inner self to the outer world.
In my late twenties, I became drawn to reading memoirs, because I reasoned that if someone could face enough adversity to write a book about it, and also efficiently process this adversity to the extent that they could actually write about it, they certainly had tangible wisdom to impart.
Now that I’m in my thirties, I constantly fall back on quotes that serve as personal reminders for times when I’m overwhelmed with worry, or otherwise similarly afflicted. When I’m more confident, select words stand in as personal mantras, guidelines by which I choose to live and understand my life. And for all the feelings in between, they help me understand myself and others.
And so I thought I’d take a moment to share five quotes that are personally significant to me, followed by what they mean within the larger landscape of my life. I hope you enjoy them even half as much as I do.
“Often the very fact that you are worrying about something means that it isn’t likely to happen.”
This quote, by author and security expert Gavin De Becker, reshapes the way I approach worrying. According to author Daniel Goleman in his book Emotional Intelligence, we tend to conflate the act of worrying with warding off danger, believing it to be a “magical amulet” protecting us from that which we fear. But when an emergency occurs and we’re in fight or flight, we don’t have time to worry about a threat, because we’re too busy responding to it. By virtue of this notion, if we do have the time and energy to worry about something, it implies that what we’re worried about isn’t currently happening. This is an important reminder for when I find myself wasting too much time ruminating or catastrophizing over the what-ifs in my life.
“I don’t want everyone to like me; I should think less of myself if some people did.”
This quote by author Henry James serves as a balm for when I exhaust myself trying to please others. It makes me stop and question why it matters whether someone likes me or not, particularly if I’m not very fond of that person in the first place. Besides, if I can dislike others, then it only serves to reason they can also dislike me. Plus, there are certain people that by mere virtue of them liking me, I have to live my life congruent with their beliefs. If I can’t disagree with them or can’t stand up for something I believe in without the risk of rejection, then my integrity’s on the line. If by being myself, someone cuts ties with me, it means we weren’t aligned in the first place. It means I stood for something important. And it’s part of how I derive self-respect. I’d much rather stand for what I think is right than focus on maintaining an image in the hopes of being liked.
“Character — the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life — is the source from which self-respect springs.”
This quote comes from the esteemed Joan Didion, one of my all-time favorite writers. It originated in her 1968 essay collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem, in the piece titled “On Self Respect.” She’s essentially arguing that accepting responsibility for oneself and one’s life is how we measure our character, and that it’s our character that builds our self-respect. The moment I began accepting responsibility for my own actions and choices, I began holding myself accountable for making better ones. I developed a sense of trust in my decisions and felt pride in my ability to stay true to myself and my values. But prior to reading Didion, I’d never directly associated cultivating character with building one’s self-respect, though in hindsight I can’t see how they wouldn’t be intertwined.
“Cherish those who seek the truth, but beware of those who find it.”
This quote, most often attributed to Voltaire, frames the way I’ve been approaching my adult life. I’m a firm believer in seeking and speaking the truth, and it’s not uncommon for me to thoroughly research concepts of interest before opining. I also peruse academic journals and stick to fact-checked news sources whenever possible. Yet, I also know that truth is an elusive concept — one that changes based on individual perspective. Two seemingly opposing things can both be accurate. And that’s why, in my reverence and respect for the truth, I’m wary of anyone who claims to have found it. When you seek the truth, you must prioritize learning over knowing. And you must differentiate between the journey and the destination.
“Sympathy is easy because it comes from a position of power. Empathy is getting down on your knees and looking someone else in the eye and realizing you could be them, and that all that separates you is luck.”
This quote, by author Dennis Lehane, absolutely epitomizes my life these past few years. It wasn’t until I’d suffered an unfathomable loss that I suddenly woke up to the fact that I’d been lucky and privileged to have survived most of my twenties with all family members still healthy and alive. And it also sent home the notion that every single day, tragedy happens to people by no fault of their own. We can do everything right and still have something go horribly wrong. We can work so very hard and still fail. We are in much less control over our circumstances than we believe ourselves to be. The reason so many people spiritually bypass or utilize toxic positivity when faced with someone else’s grief is that it draws a line between them; it “others” the person grieving, and it separates them from those who are not. Because if it’s not just one person’s problem, that means it could happen to anyone, and this reality is often too frightening to accept. But sadly, it’s also the truth. I’d much rather meet people where they’re at without needing to clean up their experience in order to make myself feel more comfortable. And I know that I have to look pain and tragedy in the eye instead of avoiding its gaze — it finds you whether you’re looking or not.