How to live like you’re dying

Dear Daughter,

This past weekend, one of my co-workers passed away from complications following surgery. Just a few weeks ago, she was walking around like normal, not aware that her days were coming to an end. And now she’s gone.

Similarly, a long-time family friend recently was told she has an aggressive form of cancer in her liver and has only four to six months to live.

The stories of these two women have been a bit of a wake-up call for me. A reminder that tomorrow is never guaranteed. Everyone imagines they’ll die when they’re old and feeble, and somehow that makes death less scary. But sometimes the Lord takes us earlier. Sometimes He takes us suddenly. We have to be prepared for either possibility.

The thought of death is frightening. Overwhelming. It can make us go into denial or live in a perpetual state of fear. But it’s important to think about death in a healthy way. There are two things we can learn from death:

Life means more. Sometimes life is fun, flashy and fulfilling. Most of the time, however, it’s boring, slow and unsatisfactory. But imagine you knew you were going to die soon. Suddenly, everything would seem much more significant. Even a trip to the grocery store would have greater purpose and meaning. When we take our life for granted, when we feel like we’ll live forever, we’re more inclined to complain, procrastinate, hold grudges… But if we were to treat every day as if it’s our last, all of the things we complain about would seem so silly. We don’t have time to get hung up on every petty little detail. We need to focus on what’s good and beautiful and meaningful. We need to find the good and beautiful and meaningful in even the smallest of tasks and in even the most difficult people.

People mean more. While it’s challenging to think about our own death, it’s far more difficult to imagine the death of a loved one. As your mother, I sometimes think about the bad things that could potentially happen to you and it drives me to a state of panic. I can come to terms with my own death. I can’t bear to even think about yours. But the people we love WILL die one day. Hopefully not for a long, long time, but it could possibly be today. Knowing this makes our loved ones that much more precious. Yes, people are complicated. And sometimes annoying. But they are put into our lives for a reason and must be treated as such. When you’re fighting with a friend or family member, think about how you would feel if suddenly they weren’t here anymore. Your attitude will shift, I’m sure.

Death seems like a negative thing, but really it’s a positive. If it makes you hug your loved ones a little tighter, treat them a little more kindly, it’s a good thing. If it makes you savor even the most menial task, if it makes you appreciate even the rainiest of days, it’s a good thing.

Death is good because it reminds us that life is good.

Love,
Mom

Pain passes…

Dear Daughter,

A few minutes ago, I swung my legs up from the floor onto the couch (which is the cozy spot where I write these letters). When I made that move, I thought about how difficult it would have been to do that just three months ago, when I was recovering from my c-section surgery. At that time, moving at all was painful, let alone anything requiring ab muscles. Raising my feet from the ground to the couch or bed was a slow process that involved a lot of cringing, wincing and even some tears. I remember thinking at that time that it would never get better, that the pain would never go away.

But it did.

This got me thinking about pain, both physical and emotional. When you’re hurting, it permeates your entire sense of being. You can’t think about anything else because the pain is so intense it’s crippling. What once seemed like an effortless, involuntary task can now feel like the most difficult thing in the world. Relief seems like light years away. You begin to wonder if this is your new reality, if you’re going to have to hurt for the rest of your life.

I think about the times I’ve been dumped by a boy, which is arguably one of the most painful experiences one can go through. They call it a “broken” heart for a reason. During those breakups, I couldn’t eat or sleep or write my name without thinking about the rejection. I would wake up and hope that it was just a bad dream. But it wasn’t. It was real. So I had to live another day dealing with this weight of grief.

Wounds do heal, though, slowly but surely. They start to scab, to toughen, so that after awhile they’re not so tender anymore. After every breakup, I made it through each day a little better than the last, and before long, the good moments outweighed the bad. I didn’t forget about the pain completely. I’m still always aware of what caused it so that I can try to keep it from happening again. But even though the memory is still there, the heartache is long gone.

Daughter, both your body and your heart will be hurt many times throughout your life. When you’re going through that pain, remember that it WILL get better. The pain WILL fade away and before long you’ll be swinging your legs up onto the couch like it’s the easiest thing in the world. You will survive this, and you’ll be a better, stronger person because of it.

Love,
Mom

An exercise in gratitude

Dear Daughter,

A while back, I wrote about how to be grateful even when you’re not. Today I’d like to expand on that, by introducing some exercises to keep gratefulness top of mind.

My friend Cary recently started writing a blog called Unrequited Bob, where he lists three things for which he is grateful, plus a brief description of a positive experience he had that day. He also is intentional about committing at least one random act of kindness every day and he writes about that as well. His blog has been an inspiration for me. As a reader, it’s been cool to see how Cary always manages to find things to be grateful for, even on what would normally be considered a bad day.

Cary’s blog reminds me of the gratitude journal I used to keep. My mom learned from Oprah that keeping such a journal does wonders for one’s mental health, so she bought me and my sister journals, where we wrote five things for which we were grateful every day. It wasn’t overly time-consuming. I usually just wrote one sentence for each item. (“I’m grateful that I had pizza for dinner.”) But it turns out ol’ Oprah was right, as usual (*eye roll*). I began searching for things throughout the day that I could add to my journal and was surprised at how easy it was. Oftentimes I listed more than five! Sometimes the items were basic (aka, the aforementioned pizza) and others were true breakthroughs for me. Most of them were things I might not have noticed if I weren’t keeping the journal.

Tangible exercises like Cary’s blog and my gratitude journal really change the way you look at your day. Instead of brooding about the few bad things that may have happened, you focus instead on the many blessings in your daily life. And once you realize just how blessed you are, it changes your whole perspective on life. Plus, gratitude is contagious. Other people will notice a change in you, and they’ll want that for themselves.

Whether it’s a blog like Cary’s or a gratitude journal like mine or some other variation, I hope you’ll be intentional about searching for the goodness in your life and documenting that goodness in some way. It’ll benefit you in more ways than you can imagine. And for that, you can be grateful.

Love,
Mom

How to stay when you want to go

Dear Daughter,

This past weekend, you went to a friend’s house for a sleepover. (Back in the day they were known as “slumber parties,” which sounds way more fun than “sleepover,” but somewhere along the line the terms have changed. Such a shame.) You were having a blast until it came time to go to bed, at which point you called me three times, begging me to come get you and bring you home. So finally, because I love you and can’t stand to hear you cry, I crawled out of bed at two in the morning to pick you up.

The other reason I caved is because I’ve been there. I remember being at a friend’s house and having fun, and then suddenly having an overwhelming desire to be in my own bed, near my own parents, in my own cozy home. I know what it’s like to be so homesick that nothing could change my mind about wanting to leave.

The thing is, though, sometimes you won’t be able to leave, or you shouldn’t, even if given the chance. Sometimes you’re going to be in uncomfortable situations that will make you feel lonely and miserable, and the best thing to do, the strongest thing to do, is just to stick it out and stay. The ability to do so will benefit you greatly in the long run.

It may seem silly, but this incidence—we’ll call it the Sleepover Conundrum—can be compared to what you’ll go through with exercise, work, friendship, marriage… anything that you might want to quit but shouldn’t. (Of course there are exceptions but we’ll deal with that another time.) Choosing not to quit, even when you’re scared, will make you a better person and will actually make life easier. It will help you practice commitment, discipline, perseverance and flexibility. And the more you stick through the tough times, the less scary they will appear over time.

Another tip: when you’re in the midst of a Sleepover Conundrum moment, try to focus on all of the good things about the situation. When you’re exercising and it hurts, imagine how great you’re going to look and feel afterwards. If you’re tempted to unfriend someone who’s upset you, remember all of the good things she’s done for you. When you’re at a sleepover and suddenly desire to go home, focus on the fact that you get to stay up late hanging out with your closest friends. There’s a positive spin to every circumstance, and honing in on those positives makes quitting seem less desirable.

Let’s say goodbye to conundrum and hello to commitment.

Love,
Mom

How to be a Jan amongst Marshas

Dear Daughter,

Yesterday a reader of this blog asked me for advice on how not to feel inferior when one of your friends seems to have it all. This is something that a lot of young women struggle with, so I decided to dedicate a full post to it.

It’s what I like to call The Marsha Effect. There’s an old TV show called The Brady Bunch, which was about a family of six kids (three boys, three girls). The middle girl was named Jan and her older sister was Marsha. Jan was the smart, clumsy, kind of nerdy one who wore glasses and had a plain appearance. Marsha, on the other hand, was beautiful, popular, charismatic, and seemed to do no wrong in the eyes of her parents or anyone. Jan was almost always jealous of Marsha, and one of the popular sayings from the show is when Jan would stomp her foot and say, “Marsha, Marsha, Marsha!”

These moments in the show were comical but are a hard-hitting reality for many women. We all have a “Marsha” in our life, the one for whom everything works out, the one that everyone loves and focuses their attention on. And we want to be happy for the Marshas. After all, it’s not like they don’t deserve the throne of greatness. It’s just that, in their greatness, we feel inferior, like there’s nothing we can do to rise up to her level. Next to her, we feel overlooked, ignored, not special enough to be noticed.

Such feelings of inferiority can cause a downward spiral of insecurity, which can lead to other dangerous things like depression, bitterness and maybe even the desire to sabotage the Marsha in your life.

I don’t have a secret potion on how to handle such a situation. But here are some ways to stand out as a “Jan” amongst Marshas:

1) Don’t ever, ever try to be someone you’re not. This is very important. You may find yourself wishing you were like Marsha but you’re not. You’re you, and you’re awesome. Don’t try to change your appearance or personality simply for the sake of getting Marsha-like attention. People will catch on to the fact that you’re a phony, and you’ll be alienated even more because of it.

2) Focus on your strengths. There was one thing Jan had that Marsha didn’t: intelligence. And in Jan’s strongest moments, she used her smarts to stand out, to get the credit that she deserved. Similarly, you have a gift that no one else does. Whether it’s your singing voice or artistic ability or your humor… figure out what it is, work on perfecting it, and when you feel inferior, remember you have this amazing gift that makes you unique.

3) Smile more and practice good posture. It seems silly but these simple physical gestures, which actually are not very simple at times, exude oodles of self-confidence. It’s hard not to notice someone with a warm smile and a tall posture.

4) Give, give, give. Instead of dwelling on your own inferiority all the time, turn your eyes outward and see where you can help others. Use your aforementioned strengths to serve those who truly are inferior in our society, or simply to help a friend who is hurting. Taking the focus off of yourself (and off Marsha) and shifting it to others will serve as a reminder that this world is bigger than you, than Marsha, than all the people who worship the ground Marsha walks on. You can make a contribution to that big world, and doing so is far more rewarding than being the most popular girl in the room.

We all have a little Marsha in us. We just have to find it.

But being a Jan is pretty cool, too.

Love,
Mom

Why the grass is not always greener

Dear Daughter,

You may occasionally hear an adult say, “The grass is greener on the other side.” That adult likely is not talking about the actual color of their actual grass. This is an expression reflecting a perception that someone else’s life, or another path of life you might take, is better than your own life, than the current path you’re on. Usually that perception is false, but sometimes it’s not. Today I’m going to attempt to write about this complex mentality.

By nature, we humans tend to covet other humans. We want what they have, whether it’s material possessions, success or relationships. In fact, just yesterday I heard on the radio that 21 percent of women say they would rather have one of their friends’ husbands than their own. (Yet another negative view of marriage that irks me to no end.) For some reason, when looking at our own lives we are dissatisfied, so we think everyone else has it better. But we don’t realize that everyone else is just as dissatisfied with their life!

It’s not just about coveting other people, though. “The grass is greener” concept applies to the decisions you make, too. People will quit a job and get a new one, thinking that the new one will make them richer and happier. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. A couple might get divorced, thinking that single life, or life away from that person, is preferable to life with that person. Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t.

And when it isn’t—when the reality sets in that the grass is not as green as the person had hoped—disappointment, heartache and regret could be the end result.

Don’t get me wrong, there will be many times in life when you’ll have to decide to take a new path, and hopefully that path will lead to good things. But don’t be so quick to get out of your current situation that you glorify the alternative. Avoid believing that the new path is your savior, your ticket to lifelong happiness. Because nothing and no one is perfect. The grass on the other side might look lush and green but could be rotting at the roots. The new job might pay more money but could require more of your time. Your friend’s husband might be better looking than yours, but he has annoying habits too.

When you do have those moments when you wonder what life is like on the other side—and you will have many, I assure you—step back and think about how great you already have it now. Try to wade past the undesirable stuff and focus instead on the things you like best about your job or spouse or wardrobe. And give grace to the people and things in your life. Know that they’re not perfect and never will be… and be grateful for that! After all, it’s the imperfections in this world that make the little nuggets of goodness that much more precious.

Love,
Mom

How to be grateful even when you’re not

Dear Daughter,

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving and, as the name suggests, this holiday is all about giving thanks, about looking at your life and recognizing the things for which you are grateful. It’s so awesome that we get a day off, filled with lots of good food, to celebrate something as simple as giving thanks. On the other hand, it’s kind of sad that we get a day off, filled with lots of good food, to celebrate something as simple as giving thanks. We should be grateful every day; why do we need a big national holiday to remind us?

But we’re human. And we’re American. And even though we’re easily the most blessed nation in the world, we often take our blessings for granted. We haven’t experienced much hardship; goodness and abundance are all we know. So sometimes we need a reminder that this is not the norm, that we truly are incredibly fortunate people.

This is something that’s been resonating with me pretty deeply this past week. I’ve been throwing quite the pity party for myself lately. I’m overwhelmed with all the things I have to do in the next month, both at work and at home, and I’ve been bitter about the fact that I have to work at all. I’m not happy with my appearance, and I’m annoyed that I have so much “stuff” in the house and I don’t know where to put it.

And yet, when I turn the lens around, I see a whole new picture. The reason I have so many things to do in the next month is because I’m having a baby, which is a miracle in and of itself, something that many women dream of doing but are unable to. I have a stable, secure, well-paying job while hundreds of thousands of people have been out of work for months, even years. I may not look as svelte as I’d like but that’s because I’m nearly 8 months pregnant (which, again, is amazing), not because I have any physical abnormalities or anything. And all of that “stuff” in our house? So much better than having nothing at all, which is a reality for far too many people.

Plus, when I cry about how miserable I think I am, I have a husband and a daughter to comfort me, wipe away my tears and make me smile again. Just having that alone is enough to fill up my gratitude bank forever, but I have that AND all of these many other blessings. How did I get so lucky?

Daughter, no matter what time of year it is, I hope that you’ll be grateful for what you’ve been given. It won’t be easy at times, when things aren’t going your way or you wish things could be different. During those times, I encourage you to close your eyes and look at your life from a different perspective, from the perspective of one who has nothing and no one. When you do that, you will realize that you have blessings coming out of your ears, and gratitude will fill your heart so full you won’t know what to do with it.

Love,
Mom

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