Living Life In The First Person

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7 bits of advice for being authentic, finding happiness, and getting real

It’s really amazing how much can change — especially for the better — in a single year. I downsized my living space and, in general, made changes intended to simplify my life.

It was time. After residing in another state for thirty years, I was ready to leave my no-longer-rewarding accumulations of predictability and repetition. I wanted the opportunity to explore new places and meet new people while experiencing — and appreciating — the influence of a different regional history and culture.

Anxious to investigate my new surroundings, I reveled in first-time discoveries. And it encouraged me to think about the relationship between a life well-lived and one full of new experiences.

Obviously, our days can’t always be filled with an endless stream of spontaneous exploration and pleasant surprises. But without an adventurous spirit and a willingness to try new things, we can easily lose our zest for life, trading possibility for the illusion of security.

The idea of living a life full of “firsts” prompted me to ask my husband which of his experiences were the most significant — those special times and moments that had truly made his life richer and more complete. His answer included the expected highlights of our relationship: our first date, the first night we spent together, and our first out-of-town trip. As he thought about earlier events — before we met — he remembered his first day of school, receiving a blue two-wheel bike on a birthday from his youth, and the last Christmas he spent with his dad.

He was quiet for a moment, and then without any explanation, disappeared into his office. He returned with a stack of old letters and what looked like birthday cards. After sifting through the pile, he pulled out one of the letters and set it in front of me.

Then he told me about his Aunt Katie — the “First Lady” of his family. Born in 1903, she experienced some very difficult times. Her older brother was killed in WWI. She lost her husband in WWII. Her only daughter passed away at age 40. Aunt Katie had cancer — and survived. Her life was one of sacrifice, sorrow, and hardship. But you would never know it.

Always happy and positive, she made everyone feel better just because she was in the room. If there was a piano in the house, Aunt Katie was pounding away on it, singing at the top of her lungs. And while she wasn’t particularly talented, educated, or accomplished — at least not by traditional standards — her grandkids, nephews, nieces, friends, and acquaintances all sought her advice and counsel.

And she always had time to listen. To those who knew her, she was truly a “First Lady” in every sense of the term. Although Aunt Katie is no longer with us (she passed away at the age of 104), she left a special kind of legacy in the form of a letter written to my husband on his 21st birthday.

On two hand-written pages, she revealed her “secrets to life” — not just how to live it, but how to savor it, how to squeeze every last drop of juice from the experience.

In her words, it was a recipe for living life in the first person.

And so, with my husband’s permission, here are Aunt Katie’s seven keys to a life well-lived.

  1. Decide what you want from life and take the risk. Although you may experience failure along the way, you’ll never have to wonder about how things might have been. Remember that a life that simply passes is a life that is wasted. Life is meant to be lived. See it. Travel through it. Experience it. Leave your mark on it.
  1. Be authentic. Pretending to be someone different than who you really are is exhausting — and deceiving. How will you know if others truly like and respect the “real” you if you wear a false personality and engage in activities that you don’t enjoy?
  1. Life will meet your expectations, whether good or bad. Worrying about things is the fastest way to go to the hospital.
  1. Telling someone that they can do better isn’t always true. They may be doing the very best they can at that point in their life. Instead, offer to help.
  1. Happiness is a “do.” When I feel down, I go outside and work in the garden or find something to keep me occupied in the kitchen. I’ll often bake something for a neighbor. And after a while, I know I’m going to be okay. The world is full of bad things — war, hate, injustice. But in my little corner of it — the place I make for myself and others — it’s always a good place, just as good as I know how to make it. And with enough good places, the bad ones will lose ground and eventually disappear.
  1. Don’t try to think for others, or try to assume their grief, or take over their worries. You were made to handle your own life, and each person gets their share, their own burdens to bear. Sometimes I need a helping hand, other times I give one. But at the end of the day, I’m the only one responsible for how I feel about what happens to me. And that goes for both the good and the bad.
  1. Do the best you can — when you can — then let it go. Feeling guilty is a double loss. You end up being upset about the past, which means you’re not at your best to handle the present. Just remember, guilt is your mind’s way of telling you that you can do better. Learn the lesson, then turn the page and move on.

Because of distance and circumstances, our visits with Aunt Katie had been far too infrequent. But her letter, written forty years ago, confirms what I had always suspected — that she lived a life full of meaning and purpose, and without any doubt, a life full of “firsts.”

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