It’s time to impart my 26-year-old wisdom

This past year I was in Lisbon! Wowee!

Birthdays seem to be favourite times for people to reflect on their lives, the year that has passed, and what, if anything, they have learned about themselves and their world. Given that I possess a long memory (so long, it seems, that I also remember things that didn’t happen), and an obsession with things past, I am no exception.

As I turn 26, and enter what I consider to be the last year I can truly refer to myself as being in my “mid-twenties”, I’ve been turning over the events of the past year in my mind. I’ve been examining them and trying to figure out what I did right, what I could have done better, and what had nothing to do with me at all. My 26th year was a good year, as years go. I was very busy, and was challenged to be braver and smarter than I usually think I am, but I was also very engaged, very supported by those around me, and very loved.

If there is one common theme to be found among the many little things I’ve learned in my 26th year, it is this: my own decisions govern a much larger portion of my life than I had originally thought (though obviously life still throws in events, obstacles, and lucky breaks all over the place).

On the one hand, this scares me. To be in the driver seat of my life is a big responsibility (and one, at the age of 26, I really can’t escape). On the other hand, on my birthday at least, it feels incredibly empowering, and exciting. Be gone, stupid things that bother me, it’s my world now!

ANYWAYS, I’m not getting any younger so let’s cut to the chase: now that I am a super wise 26-year-old and am no longer held back by my 25-year-old naivete (ha ha), the gift I will give to the world this year is a list of decisions that, before my 26th year, I never knew were really decisions at all:

1. My own limitations are my decision.

I learned this when I travelled across Portugal and Spain last October. I was very anxious about travelling by myself for a month. I expected to be overwhelmed. I expected that I would be subjecting myself to the cruelty of the universe and my inability to read directions on a map and I’d spend most of the trip having an awful time. But I was fine. Yeah, I got lost. Yeah, I wasted some time and money. Yeah, planning on the fly can get a bit stressful, especially with shoddy internet connections and foreign keyboards. But I saw the things I wanted to see and did the things I wanted to do (with a couple of exceptions). I knew where the boundaries of my comfort zone were, and I decided to step outside of them.

In Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia

I also tried to recognize where having limitations was beneficial, and in those cases, I decided to honour those limitations. For example, because I was travelling alone, I decided that my health was paramount. So I didn’t drink much, and I didn’t stay up too late (Barcelona is a pretty expensive place to just lie around and be hungover in). Sure, I missed out on some of the clubbing, but hey, I’ve spent the past six or so years in highly physical training of one kind or another. I am very aware of the limits of my physical stamina, and I decided to respect them by being good to my body while I was travelling. So did I miss out on things? Did I limit myself? Yes. But my limitations were my decision and the compromises I made were ones I can live with.

2. Falling in love is a decision.

I don’t think I so much fell in love this year as made a decision to step forward into it. There is a moment, in love, when you can decide to leave certain things unsaid, or undone. You can turn back, you can pull away. It might not be this way for everyone, or every time a person is in love, but this time, I decided. I decided to accept the potential for heartbreak. I decided to make space for a new past, one that included a person who had never been in my past before. I decided to make space in my imaginings of my future.

It is a big thing, to take on the potential for hurt, to include someone else in your wishes. I’m glad I didn’t tumble headlong into it, sight unseen, and just stick with it because it was too late to turn back. I’m glad I decided. It was worth the decision.

3. A family is a decision.

There’s a funny old saying that goes, “You can’t choose your relatives”, and biologically speaking, no, you can’t. Your parents will always be your parents, your siblings your siblings, and your children your children. But that’s beside the point.

My parents’ vegetable garden on the Prairie, July 2011

The family I will always want to have is a family that is close and supportive, whose memories of funny moments and happy times outnumber the memories of arguments or strife. I don’t ever want to have a family that dreads seeing each other on the holidays, or dreads telephoning each other, and fortunately for me it is unlikely that I ever will.

That said, it occurred to me this year that just because I will always have my family, that doesn’t mean that they can be taken for granted. The same attention I give to my romantic relationships (because there is the potential there to lose the other person if things don’t work out) can and should be paid to my relationships with my family. This means trying to watch my temper, trying to be helpful, and trying to be understanding of my family’s peccadilloes, (the way they are understanding of mine). My family has always been close to me, and we are funny and awesome. Now that I don’t get to see my family as often as I’d like, I want to make sure they will always remain close to me. Whether or not I put in the work to maintain strong supportive relationships with my family depends on me.

4. Being a nice person is not one decision, it is many many decisions.

I’ve always wanted to be a nice person. I presently want to be a nice person, and I’ll always want to be a nice person. But deciding to “be nice” is only the first decision of many. Being a nice person means making a decision every time I am faced with the opportunity to prioritize my comfort over the comfort of another. Sometimes it means deciding not to be snappy or rude to a stranger just because I’m having a bad day. Sometimes it means giving up something that I want, but don’t actually need as badly as someone else does. Sometimes it means inconveniencing myself a bit for the convenience of someone else.

Does my good side always win out? No, it definitely does not. I’m still a work in progress, and I’m okay with that (no one’s perfect). That said, do I think I am a nice person? Yes, for the most part I do, because instead of resting on my laurels and assuming I’m nice because I’m polite and don’t kick puppies, I recognize that being nice is a continuous process.

It’s not just about how good I feel when I do something nice (and I do feel good), it’s about deciding to make my coveted identity as a “nice person” an effortful and continuous state of being. Or, you know, an effortful and continuous struggle. Because as anyone who knows me well can probably tell you, I’m no saint. But at least I try.

So “Happy Birthday” to me.

I’m probably one of the luckiest ladies alive, considering the often-charmed circumstances in which I spent my 26 years. Now that I’m a little bit older, I hope I am indeed a little bit wiser (otherwise I just wasted a lot of everyone’s time imparting my wisdom) and I hope at this time next year I will be able to look back on continued growth, and more bitchin’ good times. I hope you will too.

Granada, October 2011

[Note: This year I had hoped to repeat my Five for Five Project in the weekend before my birthday, but unfortunately a personal matter took me out of the province. Instead, to express my gratitude for 26 years on this great planet I have donated $26 to the David Suzuki Foundation.]

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