I saw a good friend yesterday that I hadn’t seen in ages. As we caught up he told me that a close family member of his was just diagnosed with terminal cancer. He told me that the refrain he heard over and over again was how unfair it was. This family member was just about to start their retirement after putting in years of hard work to get to a point where they’d be able to enjoy it, and now they’d gotten a death sentence instead.
He said that he looked at this family member’s life as a success- in the sense that although she was nearing retirement, she wasn’t someone that had put off enjoying life, but instead had really embraced it and how grateful he was for that small comfort, as she inched closer to death.
We talked about death and we talked about how to live. He asked me what was my definition of success, and I wasn’t really too articulate in my answer. It’s something that death sharpens, the clarity that as finite and tangible as our problems seem, in reality they could be wiped out in a hot second and we could be gone forever in the blink of an eye.
So these are my thoughts on success in the days since. The lying-on-my-death-bed kind of success I’d feel good about.
- Leaving Behind Numbing and Living from an Authentic Place
I’ve had the quietest six months of my life. Like ever. It’s been painful at time, just sitting quietly in my own company, my demons having a chance to surface and be really examined. It’s been painful, but it’s been awesome. Just like if I spent the last six months marathon training and could say I was in the best shape of my life, doing the work on myself has led me to being in the best head space of my life.
There may be other parts of my life that I need to sort out but starting from a foundation that is healthy and happy and real is for me, all I’ve ever wanted. I could stop right there and to be honest, that is success.
I’ve talked to a lot of good, good people over the last few months, many of whom have been kind enough to open up about their own struggles, and there is a lot of people out there that are hurting that have never spent time getting to the bottom of it. They ignore and numb through chasing achievement or doing drugs, throwing themselves into other people, or buying new things, travelling habitually or drinking.
To hear that voice takes slowing down. It takes being willing to stop the numbing and go through a bit of pain and quiet to do it. Maybe an ugly cry or five. It takes work to really listen to that voice and start hearing it until it isn’t there any more.
And the funny thing is, that you may go back to the things that you did to numb. But they’re so much more enjoyable doing from a place of enjoying them for what they are instead of a tool to run from that of which we don’t want to face.
- A Messy Life is a Good Life
I used to have this metaphor with an old friend about splatter painted canvases versus white canvases.
What am I on about?
Well basically the metaphor is: the life we’ve been given to live is the blank, white canvas. Splatter painted canvases are lives lived well. They are messy. They are hard. They take effort. They take jumping in the ring. And sometimes things will work out better than we can imagine, and sometimes it will feel like sloughing through a field of sloppy mud with the effort and smell indicative of the hardship it will take to get through. But messy means that you’re at least picking up the paintbrush and creating something. That is life.
The courage in doing that is the victory.
- Being Graceful
One of my best friends had a relationship of many years fall apart recently when he found out his significant other had cheated on him. Watching him go through it was incredible. He was incredible in how he absorbed all of it. The lost future, the years spent with someone who in the end betrayed him so terribly. The pain of the present. All of the emotions swirled.
When I asked him what was triggering his ability to be so measured in his responses as they worked through separating their things and other such niceties of parting ways after a long relationship, despite his declaration to me that he never wanted to see his former partner again, he said that his mom had taught him to be graceful and in every action and interaction with this person and others, being graceful was his number one goal.
For some reason that resonated with me, perhaps because as I was telling my friend, if I had to use a word or phrase to describe myself it would be “passionate mess.” I’m all for authenticity, but there comes a time and place and situation that fueled by grace is the way to go. To me it means gratitude for the time you had with someone, and the fortitude for an ending that you can look back with pride on instead of regret.
I felt that the passionate mess got taught a real lesson and for some reason the grace thing really resonated.
Maybe sometimes we want to share our emotions with someone who has hurt us so they can fix them or take them on, when in reality the only person that can do that is ourselves.
- Thinking About Other People
I was walking up a street in Vancouver the other day, and I started chatting to a guy that I soon found out was homeless. We had a great chat, in talking about how great the weather was that day, and he told me very matter of factly, how bad the winter was for him, as he said there was 5 straight days he was out in the rain and the cold. As I got to the restaurant where I was going and we said our goodbyes, I walked away and thought, “Ciara you asshole (I’m trying to be nicer to myself, but old habits die hard), this guy probably would love some food, go ask him what he wants.”
He was so sweet and appreciative and asked for a tofu rice samosa. I asked him if he wanted to come in with me since I had no idea if this was tofu, and rice and a samosa or how this whole thing worked. He told me he couldn’t because he was banned from the place for causing a disturbance in the past. So I walked in, ordered 4 tofu rice samosas which was apparently excessive (he exclaimed, “you got me FOUR!” as I laughed and told him I had no idea what was normal and to give some to his friends).
After I got them for him, we sat outside on a glorious day and I had the best lunch date I’ve had in a very long time.
Reaching out, being nice and connecting with people is still in my opinion the best elixir for feel good and a life well spent that’s out there.
- Putting Yourself in Uncomfortable Situations
I recently started playing Gaelic football. I was introduced by a good friend to a good friend of hers who played. We talked about how I’ve found Vancouver to be a difficult place to meet and connect with people, and so this new friend told me to come to practice and join the team.
Not only did I show up to practice a sport that I still don’t really know all the rules for, it was with a bunch of people that I didn’t know who are in the middle of their season and know each other. Even more so, as most are Irish, I felt even more awkward that I don’t share the accent of most of them and felt even more self conscious. It has given me major flashbacks to being 14 at a new high school, feeling like everyone is looking at you and just wanting to run away.
My third practice the other night was at UBC, and I almost turned around about 15 times. I’m not exaggerating. After thinking to myself, why the hell is this drive so long and giving me the time to want to turn around, I thought to myself like a mother trying to talk a kid into something, “Ciara if it’s terrible and you hate it then you don’t have to go next time, but just go this time.” I got there and gave myself one last out and said to myself, “ok if you’re late you don’t have to go”, but I checked my watch and had 5 minutes to spare. I felt like I was pushing myself from behind with every step walking over to the group of girls I barely knew.
So to the third practice I went, and of course, I met some great people, felt way more comfortable, learned a few more rules and have made my next practice be not so intimidating. I’m playing in the North American Championships in a few weeks which is a whole other story, but you live once right?
Every good thing that’s ever happened in my life, has always come from putting myself in uncomfortable situations and this has been another good reminder of it. I’m not sure it ever gets easier but nothing bad ever came from doing something that made me uncomfortable. In fact some of my best memories have.
- Throw Away Timelines and Checklists
I think when you get into your mid and late thirties you start to see a finish line to this thing called life, or at the very least, feel an added sense of urgency to have something to show for the years you’ve been on earth.
Otherwise known as the society checklist.
Things that are on this list include, what kind of job do you have, how much money do you have in the bank, how long is the relationship you are in been, are you married, how many children do you have, how perfect is your social media, I could go on.
Furthermore if you are failing to check any or all of these boxes, in your mid to late thirties, you feel as though you are standing naked in the middle of a shopping center.
I had a really good friend say to me the the other day after she’s worked through some things how regretful she felt that it’s taken her so long to get to this good point she is at because she hasn’t checked a lot of the boxes and is approaching her mid thirties.
And as I said to her and what I truly believe, throw away the checklists and timelines. They are not real.
Some people check all the checkboxes and wake up one day when they are 70, or their kids leave home and they have a hot second to focus on themselves, or have had a life altering thing happen that gives them perspective and wish they had gotten to the bottom of whatever it was that held them back from living a life they wished they have lived. And some people check the boxes and live happily ever after. And some people don’t check any boxes and they thrive. There’s no right or wrong. There’s no timeline to do anything, that I’m sure of. Anyone trying to push their timeline or choice on you is projecting their own insecurities.
The checklist is an illusion of a society that many get security from buying into. Do you.
- Embrace Doing What You Don’t Like To Get to Do What You Love
Sometimes you will have to do things you don’t like to do what you love. This is something I’ve learned a lot over this last year and it’s been an awesome lesson. I haven’t had much patience for doing what I don’t like, and I’ve quit or not done it because of it (otherwise known as “adulting avoidance”)
But you have to work hard or go through hard things and sometimes go through the mud to get to the warm sunny beach. I could go on, but this has already gotten pretty wordy, so I’ll leave it at that. Committing to something even if it’s hard and putting years in leads to good places.
- Embrace Mistakes without Regret
I’ve messed up a lot if I look back over the course of my life. Situations I wish I handled differently, people I wished I had acted with more kindness and grace towards.
We bring so much of our own insecurities into every situation and it taints them sometimes. But we can’t change them, we can’t go back. We can apologize and take responsibility and hope that people give us the grace to forgive us and with that renewed trust do better next time. Whether its a second chance with those people or with someone new.
The thing about life is that as I’m sure twenty country songs I’ve heard have said, it’s not a dress rehearsal. We have one chance, and we’re not going to be perfect, in fact it is likely that we are going to screw up a lot.
I read Shoe Dog, by Phil Knight, and I think he said it best in defining Nike’s Corporate Strategy. Try and do big things and screw up as quickly as you can, so you have as much time as possible left to take the lessons you’ve learned and use them to do even bigger things.
- Keeping Perspective
When I was in grade six, I got picked for a choir trip to California. It was the highlight of my life, and then the Iraq War happened, and the parents decided that they didn’t feel safe sending their precious cargo into the land of the brave and free, or whatever the American saying is. I was devastated, it was the worst thing ever, and I felt certain as an eleven year old, that my life would never recover from this completely shattering experience.
I’ve thought about that often when something happens to me that seems or feels devastating. It’s all relative. I went to California about 15 times in the next 10 years after that cancelled choir trip and rarely thought about it anymore.
There are things that are devastating, like really really devastating, and things we won’t ever recover from. But I always think in any situation, what will my perspective be on this 30 years from now. It makes one realize how fluid and malleable so much of life and that sometimes our big things in one moment will be specks of dust ten years later.
- Laughter Cures Everything
I’ve talked about it before, but my Mum has MS. She’s had it since I was 6 and its a shitty disease that robs people of their physical capabilities slowly over time. I watched my mom go from her diagnosis, to a cane, to a walker, and finally into a wheelchair when I was 20. It sucked.
But I’ll also tell you my favourite memory with my Mum.
We were home alone, I was probably about 25. And all of a sudden there was a yell from the hallway at the other side of the house that I could hear from the kitchen. I rushed to see what was the matter, and there lay my Mom on her back, still in her wheechair. “I forgot to put the damn backstop on,” she said frustrated and upset. So I tried to pick her and the wheelchair up. And I couldn’t. And I tried again. And I still couldn’t. And we both were frustrated and upset. And then she started laughing. And I started laughing, and we ended up sitting there for 15 minutes hysterically laughing about the whole ridiculous scene.
And then I tried again and I got her up. And I thought to myself, how laughter is the secret weapon of life that can take down anything, no matter how shitty.
So with all that….. what is my definition of success? (*Sends web link of blog to friend that asked). Don’t worry I didn’t forget.
For me, my definition of success right now, the place where I’ll feel content on my deathbed (the best perspective to look at how you’d want to live your life from) would be:
“Gracefully living a non-timeline/checklist focused, messy life from an authentic, healed foundation. I’ll go out in the world and fill my space with as much love as I can recognizing that it will be hard sometimes but I’ll do it to get to do the things I love. I’ll do things that I’m passionate about that will impact the people I cross paths with in as positive way as possible, embracing the many mistakes I’ll make, making myself uncomfortable as many times as I can in the process. I’ll keep perspective through all the ups and downs. And I’ll laugh. A lot.