51 (hard-earned) lessons about life, love and traffic circles


51 (hard-earned) lessons about life, love and traffic circles

It is a milestone midlife birthday celebration on a glowing autumn afternoon. A journalist, an adventurer, a lawyer, an artist, a psychologist, a teacher and a film director (on WhatsApp from California) gather around a table to raise a glass to the joys of becoming older and wiser. When the conversation turns to what they've learnt, ANNELIESE BURGESS grabs a notebook to capture the insights of a group representing every decade from 40 to 70...


On love, marriage and breadcrumbing ...

  1. Any relationship is controlled by the person who cares the least. 
  2. What gives love its power is that it is shared. (“From Gordon Livingston's lovely book, ‘Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart: Thirty True Things You Need to Know Now’. It is such a profound truth.” Anna, 55)
  3. Being heard is so close to being loved that, for the average person, they are indistinguishable. (“From David Augsburger."Kim, 50)
  4. No growth of the heart is a waste, ever.
  5. When a man (or woman) you love gives you crumbs, walk away even if it feels as if your heart will shatter, because in the long run the invalidation will break it anyway. (“This is a truth that only revealed itself to me recently when I stumbled upon the concept of emotional breadcrumbing. It is where a person drops crumbs to keep your attention because they want to bask in your love and attention, not because they intend to reciprocate. They want to keep you hooked without investing in the relationship.” — Jann, 58)
  6. You cannot change a person's nature. And we spend far too much of our lives trying to do just that. Just stop. It's pointless.
  7. There is no way around grief and loss. Only through.
  8. Kindness is the most underrated virtue in a human, especially in those who have the power to withhold it.
  9. To allow yourself to be vulnerable with another person is the ultimate act of emotional bravery. It's also the hardest.
  10. Sometimes rude people are just shy people.
  11. A marriage can derail a good relationship. (“If I had known then what I know now, I would have replaced ‘until death do us part’ with ‘until this no longer works’." Anna)
  12. Divorce can be a symbol of a successful marriage. (“Marriage isn't a test to pass or fail. All relationships are about growth. And sometimes we grow to places that don't include the other. Growth is never a failure."Judy, 73)
  13. Love and grief are inextricably linked. Deep grief is not possible without great love.
  14. Life's greatest gifts come when you step into vulnerability and not knowing, and you embrace uncertainty. (“If I had to identify the single greatest lesson I have learned in my life, and from counselling thousands of clients over more than four decades, then it is this." Judy)
  15. In my seventies, the value of time left creates anxiety but also makes what I do every day more important. I no longer do things I don’t want to. And I have learned a deep respect for the gift of love and connection. It is not a given. You might think so at 50, and you might still be arrogant about it at 60, but at 70, it is a state of grace.

Friendship, kids and an inner voice...

  1. Your first instinct about someone is usually correct. (“The older I become, the more I have learned to listen to my inner voice, which is probably just pattern recognition from being on this planet for a long time."Anna)
  2. Nobody likes to be told what to do. Not when they are 5. Or when they are 50.
  3. The belief that we are solely or even predominantly responsible for the accomplishments and setbacks of our children is a narcissistic fallacy.
  4. You cannot be everybody's cup of tea. Give up trying to please everyone. It's impossible. Sometimes people will simply not like you. 
  5. Friendships end. Or, sometimes, cannot be saved. And that's OK.
  6. Deep and enduring love sometimes comes slowly. (“When my daughter was born, I did not feel the immediate rush of transcendental love that everyone said I should feel. I thought there was something wrong with me. It took me a year to fall in love with my child. And now I am. Forever." Anna)
  7. In your late sixties and seventies, you care less and less about being accepted and approved of. (“I also find that I have become far more discerning about who I spend my free time with, and these people are becoming fewer and fewer. If someone is not bringing joy, I am able to move on from them with very little regret."Judy)
  8. Becoming older does not necessarily mean you are growing. 
  9. Sometimes, removing yourself from an unhealthy situation is not running away. It is simply a tactical withdrawal.
  10. In our middle age, most of us have experienced some form of deep loss, like a parent who has died or a divorce. It makes you aware of how brutally everything can end. Live and love in the moment, as corny as that may sound.

On bravery and work

  1. We are defined by what we fear.
  2. But you are braver than you think! (“A line from Barbie and the Three Musketeers, nogal. Love it".Peter, 56)
  3. Sometimes fear will not subside, and you must do it — be afraid.
  4. Being able to name your emotions accurately is the first step in dealing with them.
  5. It’s best to discover what you don’t want than what you want. 
  6. It's a simple truth that we get what we settle for. And that people do to you what you allow them to.
  7. Mind over matter is always a short-term solution. (“We tend to value ‘strength' as a virtue. You can't think a problem away. It has to be confronted." — Anna)
  8. Not taking criticism personally is the best life hack. It is also the most difficult to master. Sometimes (more often than not), the negative stuff people project on you has very little to do with you and everything to do with their inadequacies and insecurities.
  9. People who need to shout and scream and minimise others are inherently weak. And insecure. Bullying is never a sign of strength.
  10. By our forties, the statute of limitations ends on most of our childhood traumas. 

Fear, bravery and ageing

  1. We are more than our job. (“Life, work balance and self-love are superficial self-help concepts, but the idea that your life's worth should be defined by the hours you put in at work is just stupid and sad." Emma, 41)
  2. Don’t underestimate the effects of thousands of years of patriarchy still bossing you around. (“I read this in one of the wonderful interviews Sam Baker does on The Shift. It rang so true for me. Most men I know would consider themselves progressive and enlightened, but so often, I still feel talked down to, minimised, bullied or disregarded by these so-called ‘feminist’ men." Jann)
  3. Where I am is where I am intended to be. (“In my 40s, I have stopped looking to the next phase... that I will be this when I’m big, meet the love of my life etc. I try to just be in the here and now." — Emma)
  4. Mindfulness is for people with too much spare time.
  5. Self-motivated creative focus is essential for healing and a retreat to sanity. 

Traffic circles, art, saltwater and pets

  1. If you don't know how to navigate a traffic circle at 50, it's too late for you.
  2. The question, “What is a successful artist?" has an infinite number of answers, many of which define creative suicide. 
  3. It is impossible to have a rational conversation in 140 characters. Or 280. 
  4. The thicker skin that comes with age is a wonderful liberation from the expectation of others.
  5. Saltwater — whether it's sweat, tears or the sea — is a cure for anything.
  6. The love of an animal is the closest thing we will experience to divine love this side of eternity.
  7. Travel is the best teacher.
  8. Fear is always better than stagnation.
  9. Consistency trumps intensity every day. The 80/20 rule works everywhere.
  10. Running or walking in nature and eating broccoli every day is very important.

Number 51. A mouthful from Jane Fonda

I reserve the last spot on our life listicle for the wise and wonderful Jane Fonda:

Now almost 86, she says she has learned to love being alone. And would not consider marriage again because she can get “much more done" when she is on her own.

And when asked whether she misses alcohol, plastic surgery, or sex, Fonda says, “I don’t miss anything. If I miss sex, I’ve got a drawer full of vibrators. All is good. I don’t have any big emptiness in my life. I don’t miss anything about youth. For that, I feel very blessed.”

I love Jane Fonda. I want to be Jane Fonda. When I am big.

♦ VWB ♦

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