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

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

On being popular…

Dear Daughter,

Yesterday while you were at your dad’s house, you and I had the following convo via text:

You: Hi mom i am almost at home and i am so happy
Me: Good! Why are u so happy?
You: Everyone was saying bye to me at the end of the day
Me: Cool. You’re getting popular. 🙂
You: I know it’s so weird. what makes me so popular?

Uh-oh.

Popularity is funny. Everyone wants to be popular, even adults! But in youth and adolescence, popularity is the ultimate goal. If you’re considered popular at that age, it’s like you’ve “made it,” you’ve accomplished your lifelong mission. Not every kid views it that way but most do. It’s just a natural rite of passage.

You’ve already seen how movies portray popularity. It’s not pretty. With a few rare exceptions (like High School Musical), the popular kids in movies are the jerks, the bullies. They pick on the loser kids and snub their noses at anyone not worthy enough to be in their elite group of “friends.” I don’t completely agree with this image of the popular kid. It wasn’t that bad at my school growing up, and I hope it’s not that bad in most schools, but I do know there is some truth to the stereotype.

Here’s what happens, psychologically: For the most part, people become popular by being well-liked, by being nice, fun and confident. Everyone wants to be around nice, fun and confident people, so it makes sense that such characteristics can be found in popular people. The problem is, once the nice, fun and confident kid has “arrived” and reached Popular Status, he sometimes forgets what got him there in the first place. Because so many people want to be around him and be like him, he becomes like a god. After awhile he views himself as a god too. Before you know it, nice, fun and confident are replaced with mean, entitled and arrogant. He relies more on his established status rather than his good qualities to determine his worth. And that’s when bullying and alienation begin.

Daughter, I want you to be popular. I’ve seen how happy it makes you to be well-liked, and that makes me happy. But don’t ever forget what made you well-liked in the first place. Don’t ever stop being sweet and funny, your two greatest qualities. Don’t ever, ever look down on anyone else for not being as “cool” as you are. For some kids, cool doesn’t come as naturally as it does to others, so give them a break. Don’t ever let your popularity get to your head, because doing so could mean hurting others.

Be the exception to the rule. Be popular by being nice, always.

Love,
Mom

How to avoid insecurity

Dear Daughter,

This past weekend, I visited the university I attended. I’d been back there several times since graduating, but this time was different. I walked around the whole campus, showing J (which is what we’ll call my husband/your stepdad) the places I lived and frequented. Walking those familiar sidewalks brought back so many memories, most of which saddened me.

J doesn’t understand why I disliked college so much. He asks if I had some kind of traumatic experience or something. I didn’t. And in fact, most of the time I thought I was having fun. But truthfully there was this constant ache deep in the pit of my heart throughout my entire time there. I wasn’t happy with who I was. I felt like I never fit in with my peers, even my closest friends. I was constantly searching for approval from my friends and from boys. I was so wrapped up in a state of insecurity that I became someone other than myself.

I tell you this because I never want the same to happen to you. Insecurity is perhaps the cruelest, most devastating emotion a person can experience. It’s completely natural for everyone to have insecure moments now and then, but it becomes a problem when it takes over the majority of your thoughts, when you spend more time worrying about what other people are thinking of you than you do anything else. Such mental domination eats away at your insides.

The other problem with insecurity is that it’s a vicious cycle. If you’re worried that your friends don’t like you, for example, after awhile they’ll see that insecurity, which is never attractive, and they really won’t want to be around you. So your fears become a reality, which makes you even more insecure, and the cycle continues. This is what happened to me, and it caused a lot of damage.

This weekend I tried to think about what I should have done differently. Was it just that I didn’t fit in at that particular school? If I went to a different college, would it have been better? Perhaps. But that excuse feels like a cop out, because I believe we’re meant to make the best of every situation.

After much thought, it dawned on me that, during those four years of my life, I stopped pursuing the things I was most passionate about, the things that made me who I was. I strayed far away from my faith, for example. All of my life I had been actively involved in church, except for when I was in college. Also, writing became more of a chore than a hobby, because the only writing I did was for school. Everything I spent my time on was other people’s interests and hobbies, not my own.

If I could do it all over again, I would have gone to Campus Life or some other Christian group. I would have worked for the school newspaper. I would have been a part of something bigger than my inner circle of friends, a part of something where I could make a legitimate contribution, which therefore would have boosted my confidence. I would have smiled more and made more of an honest effort to invest in other people’s lives instead of being so consumed with my own sense of worth.

Daughter, please remember these words when insecurity starts to get the best of you. Don’t ever stray from the things that make you, you. Pursue your passions, use your gifts, and recognize your value by doing so. Surround yourself with people who will build you up, and be the person who builds other people up. I don’t want you to look back on a major part of your life and feel sadness and regret, like I do when I remember my college years. I want you to look back and be proud of the person you became during that period of time. I want you to look back and smile.

Love,
Mom

The two things to know about bullying

Dear Daughter,

A hot topic in the news lately is bullying, because there have been many instances (far too many) of kids committing suicide as a result of being bullied. It’s horribly tragic and such a shame. I firmly believe that this can be prevented, and that parents are the number one source of prevention. So it’s time I start talking to you about it.

First of all, I must admit that I’m perplexed as to why this is happening suddenly. Bullying is nothing new. It’s been around since the beginning of humanity. So why is it that the results of bullying are so extreme now? Is the type of bullying worse than it’s ever been? Are kids more sensitive? Or is the world just so complex now that kids simply can’t handle one more difficulty? I suppose it’s a mixture of all three.

Whatever the causes, I have two messages for you today: one is to avoid bullying with all of your might, and the second is to speak up if you’re being bullied.

There will always be kids in your class who are “different,” outsiders, not desirable to be around. You will be tempted to make fun of them because of this. Especially when all of your friends are making fun of them. But before you do, I implore you to put yourself in their shoes. Imagine if YOU were the one who was “different.” Would you want people alienating you and teasing you incessantly? Would you want to be the one sitting all by yourself at lunch? There was a time, in sixth grade, when I was the girl with no friends, and I can tell you firsthand that it’s beyond painful. It’s difficult for those kids to even wake up every day, knowing they’re about to face more and more rejection. Don’t contribute to their pain and fear.

I’m not saying you need to be best friends with that person, but I am saying you should treat him or her how you would want to be treated. At the very least, if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all. They might appreciate your silence, that you’re the ONE kid who leaves them alone. But it also wouldn’t hurt to take it one step further: smile at them or talk to them about something you know they’re interested in every once in a while. MAYBE even ask them to sit with you at lunch. Your friends might be appalled, but chances are good they’ll also admire your leadership and willingness to step outside the box by befriending the unfriended. Who knows, maybe your actions can change the way your entire group of friends thinks about the kid. It’s worth trying, at least.

And finally, if you’re being bullied, don’t just sit there and take it. Stand up for yourself wherever possible, show people that you are unique and that your uniqueness makes you awesome. If it gets really bad, tell us or your teachers or some other authority figure about it, in case disciplinary action needs to be taken. And find coping mechanisms, so you can focus on things other than the bullying. Bury yourself in a hobby or sport. Exercise. Invest in your relationship with God, whose immense love for you will always cancel out the hatred of the bullies.

My biggest hope is that you’ll be loved and accepted and that you will love and accept others. I hope that when the bullied kid is grown and looks back on his younger years and remembers you, he’ll think, “She was different from the others. She made my life a little easier.” Make that your goal today.

Love,
Mom

Knowing when to care about what other people think

Dear Daughter,

One of the biggest struggles you’ll deal with in life, that you’re already dealing with, is choosing whether or not to care about what other people think of you.

On the one hand, you want to get feedback or constructive criticism from others because it makes you better, but on the other hand, dwelling on other people’s opinions of you can a) cause great anxiety, and b) make you start living for others instead of for yourself. So deciphering when it’s healthy to care and when it’s not is one of humanity’s greatest juggling acts.

I have a long history of worrying too much about how people perceive me, particularly in my teen and college years. If I found out that a person made fun of me for something, I’d stay awake for hours at night thinking about it. I’d spend an exorbitant amount of time anticipating how others would feel about my clothing, my actions or my decisions, and would often change what I originally set out to do because of their predicted reactions. I’d be afraid (and still am) to stand up for myself because I don’t want the other person to think I’m mean.

So, it’s safe to say I’m not qualified to give you advice on this subject. Except that, as I grow older, it gets a little easier. I’m learning that life is like a blink of the eye, and I simply don’t have time to worry about what others think. I need to invest my time into my family, my relationship with God, my work and my passions. That leaves little time for anything else.

But when is it okay to care about what others think? Because you do want to care a little bit. To do otherwise would make you a rude, selfish person. You want to have courtesy for others, particularly when you’re driving 45 mph in the left lane of the interstate and there’s a whole line of people behind you who have somewhere to be, dang it. (Hypothetically speaking, of course.) Sometimes you really do have to put your own needs aside for the sake of others.

As for when people criticize you, ask yourself the following questions: Is this person a loved one who knows me well? Do they know the whole story behind why I did what I did? Is he or she a generally negative person? Will this criticism make me better or is it just a little setback that has no real impact on the big picture of my life?

By asking these questions, you will determine whether or not the feedback is worth listening to. If you decide it is, then take the core lesson from it, throw out the rest, and move on with your life. If it’s not worth listening to, then don’t. Throw it away in the little trash receptacle in your brain. (There is one, you know. I imagine it has a foot pedal to open it so you don’t have to touch the filthy thing.) This is easier said than done, but once you remove that toxin from your life, you’ll be surprised at how quickly you forget about it, and you’ll have thicker skin for the next time around.

There is so much more I could say about this subject, so I suppose there will be more letters to come. In the meantime, I encourage you to be your own person who is courteous of others but who also stands up for herself when necessary, who will take the good out of constructive criticism and will extricate the bad, never to be seen again.

Love,
Mom

Relying on others vs. yourself

Dear Daughter,

Last night, on the very funny show Modern Family, the father Phil decides that he wants to walk on a tightrope. So he gets all of the equipment and places the tightrope only a foot or so off the ground at first, just so he can get the hang of it before making it higher. He struggles, however; he falls off the tightrope every time and eventually decides to give up. But then his son, who’s probably about 10 years old, says something very wise:

“Maybe you keep falling because part of you knows you can fall. Maybe if the wire was much, much higher, you wouldn’t fall.”

I’ve found that this philosophy applies to a lot of areas in life. Sometimes, when you know that someone is there to catch you, you’re more likely to fall.

For example (a very practical one), when I was out of college and just learning how to cook (things other than Ramen noodles and mac ‘n cheese), there was a huge difference in how I acted in the kitchen when by myself as opposed to when I was with my mom. When Mom was with me, I questioned every move I made. I would ask her if I’d measured the ingredients correctly, or if I’d stirred for long enough or if the chicken was cooked enough. But when cooking by myself, I didn’t have anyone else to rely on to answer those questions for me. I had to figure it out for myself, and doing so helped me become a better, more independent cook. You’d think I would have learned more from Mom’s expertise (and don’t get me wrong, I did learn a LOT from her), but it was stepping outside my comfort zone and experiencing my own trials and errors that had the greatest impact on my ability.

There are countless other ways in which this concept applies. If you’re grieving something and you know someone is there to listen to every tearful woe, you might grieve a little longer than you would otherwise. Drug or alcohol addicts who have loved ones that keep taking them back in when they mess up are more likely to keep messing up, because they know they won’t really lose anything either way.

There’s a fine line between having support and knowing when to do things on your own. You don’t want to abandon the people who are there to help you, but there comes a time when you do need to step out and experience life on your own, or else you’ll never grow. It can be painful and scary, and you might even fail, but the lessons you learn from doing so will make you far better, without a doubt.

After listening to his son’s wise words, Phil hangs the tightrope seven feet off the ground. And sure enough, he makes it all the way across. He knew that this time around, the consequences of falling were far greater, so he tried harder, focused more intently on doing it the right way, and therefore found success.

We all need to rely on other people to help us get through life. But every once in a while, you need to place the tightrope a little higher and trust in your own ability.

Love,
Mom

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