Getting older and becoming more of an adult comes with some growing pains, as my mom calls them. I’ve definitely been going through them.
My twenties have so far been punctuated by a pervasive and increasing sense of uncertainty. Even though I’m learning to cope with the ambiguity of this part of my life, sometimes I struggle with it.
Additionally, moving from the relatively carefree period of my teens and childhood into the ever-increasing responsibility of my twenties has been shocking. And there is a little tint of sadness at the edges of my life as I watch my parents age and bury people I have loved dearly. The sadness comes from the events themselves, but also from the knowledge that such heart-wrenching things are normal.
So how do I make peace with the messiness of life? How do I end up like one of those women who’ve gone through decades of life and some hard things but still celebrate its goodness in the way they live with joy and optimism every day?
The problem with future-facing living
I’d say that one of the defining features of my twenties so far has been the fact that nothing in my life is set. On the one hand, this can sometimes drive me crazy because I’m the kind of person who likes knowing what the next step is. But on the other hand, this means that I could technically do anything since nothing’s set yet. The sheer number of possibilities that come from this means that I think about the future a lot. I think there are some good things that come out of looking ahead and finding some hope in what I see there, but the side-effects of being future-facing can be restlessness, impatience, and anxiety.
I’m guilty of treating the present as a means to an end. Sometimes, the present is something to just get through so I can get to the promise of someday, which is when I’ll finally be happy. When I think like that, I see a lot of obstacles when I look around at the present. I see things that are in my way, things that are slowing me down, things that are holding me back, and they annoy me. School becomes the thing that’s preventing me from being able to start my own life, conversations become things that are stopping me from getting to where I need to go in the mornings, the walk to the bus becomes a too-hot or too-cold trudge that’s messing up my hair and wearing down my shoes.
I find it interesting that depending on my perspective, the very same things can be irritating time-sucks or the kind of moments I wish I could bottle up and experience again and again.
A few weeks ago, I read a Humans of New York post that delighted me so much I saved it.
This man’s story was wonderful to me. His life routine is simple and he finds joy in it. My grandpa was like that. He would find joy in seeing a baby on tv, belly-laugh at funny commercials, and take pleasure in knowing that people he loved were simply physically present. It didn’t mean that he didn’t have his own difficulties, but it did mean he was able to find the good in things even when life was hard. I think it was tied to his Christian faith and I believe it helped to make him patient, forgiving, and kind.
When I think about my beloved grandpa and the man in the Humans of New York post, I’m struck by the fact that the things they celebrated are also things that people ask “is this it?” about. We’ve all heard those stories about people who feel trapped by the mundane nature of their lives, the familiarity, the repetition, and the predictability. We might have been there ourselves, thinking that we need to move, or travel, or pursue some long-dormant passion of ours in order to be happy. I know I have.
But the crazy, wonderful thing about this Facebook post is that it highlights for me that contentment, and the happiness that flows from it, doesn’t have to come from perfect circumstances or drastic actions: it can come from a change in the way we think about things.
My perspective changes when I “zoom in” to inspect the (seemingly) little things in life. Sometimes, I walk home and notice the way the light is hitting the trees and making the leaves look like they’re sparkling. Or I’ll realize how much joy there is in just hanging out with my sister, happily eating pizza in the middle of the night. Then there are things like watching a dragonfly land on a leaf or enjoying the warmth of the early fall.
Gratitude can lead to contentment
All those things require a focus on the present, which is something that requires a little attention hijacking, especially for someone like me who spent her childhood, teenage and twentysomething years dreamily peering into the future. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I think I trained my brain to think that the present didn’t matter. I’ve found that a good way to focus my mind on the present is to just be grateful. That’s it.
A few months into my year without makeup, I made the decision to get baptized as an adult (I was baptized as a baby) because my understanding of God had changed. I had gone from thinking that God was a too-close-for comfort being who was constantly angry at me to realizing that He actually loved me a lot and wasn’t trying to smite me. He forgave me for my sins. For me, that was a catalyst for gratitude. Prior to this, it was easy for my thoughts to spiral into negativity. I wasn’t exactly a positive person.
But suddenly, I started thanking God for things when I was tempted to feel upset, or ungrateful, or just focus way too much of my energy on myself.
And then I would just feel happy at the weirdest times. Failed a test? Happy. Revising something for the umpteenth time? Happy. Holed up in the library all day? Happy.
Being grateful forces me to look around at what I already have and am already experiencing and make me see how good it is. It makes me feel like I have an abundance of material things and non-material things, and I feel happy with what I have. I feel content. It’s hard to see lack when you’re feeling grateful.
I honestly think that complaining is addictive and something that can be hard to break, so I still find myself slipping into that negative mindset at times. I think the good thing is that now that I know how to get to a place of contentment, I don’t stay in that negative space. I try to do things, like thank God for 3 things each day, that get me into the habit of being present, being grateful, and being content.
But there’s also acceptance
I don’t want to leave this here. I’m not going to lie, I’m the kind of person who’s tempted to roll her eyes when people say that if you’re grateful and you look on the bright side, then all your negative feelings will go away. The truth is that some things in life cause us pain, push our buttons, and are just really hard to swallow. Finding things to be grateful for can definitely put a silver lining on the storm clouds raining all over our parades. But do you know what’s really helpful when it’s raining? Umbrellas.
I’m learning that one of my “umbrellas” is acceptance. It doesn’t sound sexy, but there’s something peaceful about accepting that there are things in our lives that we can’t change. Someone wise once told me that the longer we take to accept something, the more we suffer.
I think acceptance also releases us from the misery of thinking that all our troubles are somehow our fault. If I’m honest, some things truly are my fault, like the stress I feel when I don’t manage my money properly. But other things, like the pain that comes with the loss of a loved on or seeing people I love go through illness, happened without me.
I’ve felt for many years that one of the beautiful things about humanity is our ability to adapt, to be resilient, to keep going when things go awry. I think we tend to think about that in terms of fighting it out until we overcome whatever obstacle we’re dealing with, but I’m learning that resilience also involves letting go, figuring out how to make things work and being content in imperfect circumstances.
Is there something you’re struggling to be content with?
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