Uncertainty

Recently, I’ve observed an interesting pattern that seems to recur throughout life. That is, nothing ever goes the way you expect. Even the best-laid plans can go awry sometimes. Or often. Or all the time.

If there is anything life has taught me in the last number of months, it is this: there is great value in being able to go with the flow and adapt to whatever comes your way, for better or for worse. Something that seems like a tragedy at the moment can be the best thing that ever happened to you – and vice versa. Uncertainty is part of the beauty of life. You never really quite know what is going on until you can look back and say, ah, I see it now.

There is no way to anticipate the future, and there is no one straight path to get where you’re going in life, whether you like it or not.

You make a decision, and that decision leads you down one avenue or the next, which in turn leads to the next fork in the road and on to the next. It’s not a matter of right or wrong, but more a matter of choices.

There was a time in my life when I created a highly regimented schedule and set of rules that I used to govern every decision I made. It was all self-imposed; I thought I knew what I wanted, and I was convinced I knew the best way to get there. I suppose every teen goes through a phase of thinking they know best, and mine just looked a little different than most people my age.

While my peers began to explore an ever-expanding world of choices, I confined myself to a shrinking prison of discipline and all the things that I knew were safe. They went to parties and tried alcohol, and I stayed home and played with new restrictions I could add to my diet. I had a set of exercises I would do each night after I came home already exhausted from a five-hour training session, and I wouldn’t let myself go to bed until they were done. Heaven forbid I touch a piece of chocolate or bowl of potatoes. If I did, the guilt would consume me until I did some extra cardio, even if I had already spent twenty-six hours at the gym that week. Or I might just explode.

It was an extremely limited, stressful way to live, one that was  entirely unsustainable in the long run.

I missed out on a lot during those six years of adolescence. I became increasingly delusional in my pursuit of a goal that was not my own, but rather one I’d adopted from some gymnasts I admired. There was no more passion in gymnastics for me – I was burnt out and tired beyond measure. People I hardly knew were worried about me, but I stubbornly refused the facts staring me in the face until I couldn’t any longer. The illusion came crashing down, and I had to start from scratch.

What do I really want to do with my life? I asked myself again and again. At the time, I had prided myself on being so self-disciplined. I had claimed it made life easier, not to have to make so many decisions. But now I look back and think, maybe I was just scared. Scared of the unknown, scared of failure or doing something undoable I might regret.

It’s funny to think about this now. Within the span of four months following a big decision in January, I had my life turned completely upside down to an extent I did not see coming. I tried to anchor myself to something that was ultimately not meant to last, at least not in the capacity it had existed up until that point. And so it collapsed beneath the weight of so much pressure, and I was free. It was time for a change, yet I was once again terrified of having the world at my feet with nothing to hold me down.

Freedom can be terrifying.

We constantly search for external anchors in life when really, the only anchor we can rely on is the one within ourselves. At our core, we all know what we truly want, whatever that may be. We’re just too scared to go after it because doing so feels exceedingly vulnerable. We tell ourselves it is impossible because we don’t know if it has ever been done. Or at the very least, we don’t know how to accomplish it. Or we’re too busy, or too tired or comfortable for such shenanigans.

Uncertainty makes us uncomfortable, and maybe rightly so. But nothing in life is ever truly fixed or certain, and acknowledging this can give us the courage to take steps where we’ve never been before, to travel and explore.

When we are young, I believe travel is the ideal way to learn and expand the brain. I was so fortunate to have had the opportunity to travel as much as I did growing up. It is a large part of the reason I am who I am today. The world can be one of the best classrooms. Now, during one of the most formative parts of my life, the thought of being tied down to any one place for too long makes me anxious. Travel is the thing I crave.

While seeing how people exist in different parts of the world is invaluable in any capacity, flying solo increases that by tenfold. Solitude enables you to reflect on your experiences and rediscover things about yourself in a way that you cannot do when you are surrounded by the people and places you know well. We need space to hear our ourselves think.

I say “rediscover,” because I believe life is largely not a process of learning about who you are but uncovering the things you already know.

No one can ever know you better than you know yourself, as comforting as it can be to let yourself think otherwise for a time. I am in the process of learning to separate my opinions and emotions from those of the people around me. You will always be influenced in one way or another by the people you spend the most time with, but being aware that it is happening gives you the power to question whose words are coming out of your mouth and dominating your brain.

These days, I am learning to let go and trust in the process a little more. I still believe there is value in setting a direction for your life, but I also believe it is important to take opportunities as they arise. So I’ve decided to do just that, to have ideas and dreams then focus on taking baby steps and the occasional leap of faith when the cliff arrives. We’ll see where it takes me next. So far, it has led me down one pretty beautiful path.

On Healing

Healing is hard work.

Our bodies are truly incredible machines, but we so rarely stop to admire all they do for us. If we break a bone, we set it straight, place it in a cast to so we don’t use it for a while, and let our body do the rest. It regenerates the cells, literally knitting the bone and surrounding tissue back together until we are whole once again. Your conscious brain doesn’t have to do a thing. We don’t have to learn or teach our bodies how to heal themselves – they just do, all on their own.

Just imagine if we have to tell our bodies to fix themselves every time we sustained an injury, however minor or major the damage might be. Cuts and scrapes, burns and fractured limbs. How much brain power would that take? Your body may break down over the course of a lifetime, but it is so much more adaptable than we give it credit for.

Beyond major injuries and small daily pains, our cells regenerate every seven years. Your body is able to shape and recreate itself until your physical self is something brand new. Sure, we’ve learned to aid our bodies in the healing process over the years, but the majority of the work done doesn’t need our help. If we take care of our bodies in the most basic way, our bodies take care of us.

If only our emotional lives could be so simple.

When we don’t have to make a conscious effort to do something, it is so easy to take it for granted. Take breathing, for example. Without oxygen, you will die. We breathe thousands of times per day without giving it a second thought, our lungs expanding and contracting like accordions while our veins and arteries circulate blood to all parts of our bodies. It knows to take care of the most vital organs first – the brain and the heart – while we slack on our end of the deal, easily forgetting to take care of those same priorities. We compromise sleep and family time for our careers. We forget to challenge our brains in new ways in lieu of money.

If we don’t take care of our bodies, we receive a series of letters in warning before we get a slap in the face. If we don’t take care of our bodies, they break down. We can’t argue, we can’t deny the evidence any longer when it comes flying at us and we know it’s true. When it comes to our hearts, however, the story is a little different.

When it comes to what we feel inside, we can lie to ourselves a lot longer. We can wear masks and pretend to be someone else, pretend we’re not hurting inside and everything is okay.

Because we can’t physically see the decay, it’s easy to deny when we’re falling apart inside. We can reach a literal breaking point and still force ourselves to keep going, keep smiling and keep moving forward with complete disregard for what is going on inside. In reality, this is no way to live a life. People can smell inauthenticity from a mile away – they can see when you’re not being honest with yourself better than you can. We like to look in our side mirrors and ignore the sign, “objects may be closer than they appear” like we left a pending explosion behind miles ago when really we’re driving with the dynamite in the back of our truck and it’s only a matter of time.

Sometimes I wonder, why is it so hard for us to be real with one another? It must take a whole lot of energy to put on a persona every day. In some ways, our culture is becoming increasingly less tolerant of inauthenticity in comparison with the last few generations. There is a movement towards sharing the struggles we all have in everyday life, towards accepting all body types and bringing awareness to mental health. Yet still, we struggle. Why is this?

Healing of any kind is hard work, but healing the heart is the hardest work of all.

We’ve all been hurt at one point or another in our life. We all have baggage we’re dragging around from past relationships, childhood fears, and the insecurities of growing up. But sometimes we forget what is in these bags we carry with us wherever we go. Sometimes we find ourselves holding onto suitcases of regret and anger and pain we should’ve jettisoned long ago. It begins to weigh us down. If we’re not careful, we can begin to lean on this baggage as part of our identity: the boy who was never seen, the girl who was never good enough. We go into new situations and relationships and find ourselves repeating the same patterns, over and over and over again, because we never dealt with the issues that grew long ago; we haven’t taken time to heal the issues that were there from the start.

Sometimes we just have to open up those suitcases to see if what’s inside is really worth holding on to, or if it’s time to make peace with that piece of your story and leave that bag under a tree by the side of the road. Dealing with the past can be incredibly painful – if you’ve walked down especially dark paths, it is not something you should explore on your own. Healing your heart takes a conscious effort, but it’s worth it.

In his TED talk on emotional pain, psychologist Guy Winch speaks about how we know now that in order to stay healthy, we need to practice first aid and hygiene. When we get a cut, we clean it and cover it with a band-aid. We fail to do the same, however, for emotional scrapes and bruises: things like loneliness, loss and heartache. Winch explains we need to learn to practice “emotional first aid” with the same diligence we do for physical wounds, in order that we may live longer, healthier and happier lives.

Be willing to feel all the feels. Tears are not something to be feared.

It is not your job to unload your baggage on to every person you meet, but I think we can all stand to be a little more honest with each other. Acting is exhausting – I’ve been there myself. I’ve watched others do the same, and it hurts my heart. Above all, we need to learn to be a little more understanding of each other’s stories so that it doesn’t seem so daunting to let our masks fall off when we encounter other people. No one is as shallow as they appear on the surface. If we can remember this, maybe we will remember to see each other as human. Maybe we’ll remember everyone has their own struggles, hopes and dreams; that no one person’s experience is any less or more valuable for the difference in intensity.

Maybe we can learn to let each other in so we can help each other heal, to make the workload a little lighter and make the road seem a little less long.