The Secret to Flying and Other Life Lessons
To celebrate 37 years of life on earth, I decided to do one of my favorite activities: Make a list! I’m an expert on how I’ve experienced life so far, and this anecdotal list is meant to reflect that, and only that, expertise. My birthday wish is for these 37 things I have learned in 37 years, to be of some use to you, and me.
Pain, Laughter, and the Number Three
1. Life can be really fucking hard sometimes. I know it hurts, baby, but when it’s hard, the best thing you can do is let it be. The Beatles got it right. There are times when there are no words, no prayers, no amount of ice cream that will make it better.
Like the first time I got my heart broken.
I slammed the front door of my boyfriend’s house behind me, ran to my best friend’s car, and screamed through my tears, “DRIVE!” She peeled out and drove me to a safe space so I could call in sick for the first time ever and cry all day. With everything else that has happened since then (divorce, death, wrinkles), I struggle to think of a time when I felt the pain so vividly. And I’m grateful for it.
The greatest gift you can give yourself during these times is to let yourself feel the pain.
2. Feeling is better than numbing. Even during the most painful times, letting yourself feel will, in fact, make you stronger and more prepared for the next hard thing. It won’t feel like it when your heart seems like it’s going to burst into a million tiny pieces, but healing and beauty will always, eventually, emerge.
3. There is something elemental about the number three.
4. A well-placed use of the word “fuck” in conversation is an act of kindness. If you’re in conversation with someone who’s in the middle of realizing how hard life can be, try using the word “fuck” in a sentence when they least expect it. At the very least, you will probably make them laugh, which might be the key to life.
6. Laugh at yourself, laugh at your problems, and do it often. At the end of everything, what else is there to do besides laugh at it all? Taking everything so seriously will just make you feel worse. Find a way to laugh.
7. Stop dwelling on the negative stuff and start learning how to laugh more.
Africans, Creativity, and the Voices Inside Your Head
8. If an African living in a war zone can keep his sense of humor, so can you. The first time I heard a South Sudanese friend laugh when I thought the world was ending, I transformed into a bird. Free at last, my life had changed forever. I’m kidding, of course. It took me a few years of thinking he was crazy for laughing while war was destroying his country, before I became a bird.
Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl said, “The last of the human freedoms is to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.” Choose to keep your sense of humor.
9. Cultivate perspective. Traveling is a fun way to do this. Witnessing how people in other places live will enrich your life, and outlook. If traveling is not an option, find ways to keep learning. Only seeing the world from a limited view is dangerous, not to mention boring.
10. Keep growing. You will be as smart and brave and creative as you want to be.
11. Yes! You are creative!
12. We are all creative. As the great Julia Cameron has said, “All of us contain a divine, expressive spark, a creative candle intended to light our path and that of our fellows.” The only thing standing in your way to being a more creative human, is the lying voice inside your head saying you can’t do it. But you CAN do it, and I believe you will do it.
13. Being yourself is an art. Dr. Seuss once said, “Today you are you, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is youer than you.” Stop trying to be what some other person or filter wants you to be. Once you can accept yourself for who you are (and admit that using cuss words on occasion is part of you), you free yourself, and you free others to do the same.
14. Learn how to treat yourself. Practice radical self-love, self-care, and self-discovery. Listen to the truth-telling voice inside your head that knows what you love, what you believe, what you dream, and then honor that voice.
16. Get out there and do the things you dream of doing. Turning your dreams into reality is one of the most fulfilling things you will ever do. If you don’t think you can live your dreams, sorry baby, but you’re mistaken. That lying voice inside your head (see #12) wants you to think you can’t live your dreams.
17. YOU CAN. BELIEVE IT. GO. DO. IT. You will thank yourself, and others will thank you for inspiring them.
Failure, Forgiveness, and World Peace
18. Be ok with failure. Failure is just another way of learning. Even though it can hurt, failing makes you better and stronger. Go ahead and feel the pain (see #1 and #2), but don’t let failure define you. Let it happen. Then, get up and try again.
19. Quitting is allowed. It’s better to quit than to keep doing something that makes you miserable.
20. Remember to laugh.
21. Part of radical self-love is learning how to forgive yourself. Even if you learn how to accept divine mercy, you must learn how to be gracious toward yourself.
You are the only person who can finally say, “Hey, you beautiful, messy human: I see you. I understand why you did that thing you did. And even if it’s not ok, I forgive you.” And then give yourself a pat on the butt.
22. Forgive yourself, and others, quickly and move on. If an African can forgive the genocidaire who killed her husband, you can forgive your girlfriend for doing the thing that hurt your feelings. It’s so not worth it to hang on to something you or someone else did wrong.
23. Do whatever it takes to learn how to resolve conflict peacefully. It might seem bizarre, but world peace really does start with you. I moved 9,000 miles away from home to learn how to make peace and guess what? At the end of it, I was left with nowhere else to look but within.
24. You need to make peace with you. You are beautiful and messy and wild and broken and wonderful. Make peace with yourself and you will radiate shimmery light and grace that the world so desperately needs.
Right, Wrong, and Love
25. It’s true that it’s better to be happy than to be right.
26. Be careful with the words “right” and “wrong”. Yes, you should be a good human, but allowing “right and wrong” to be your sole motivation is misguided. Let love be your motivation.
28. Take that radical self-love and apply it to others. Be kind. Be helpful. Be present.
29. Listening is the most powerful and important skill you will ever have. Remember that time when someone made you feel like you were truly being listened to for the first time? What were they doing? Did they gently command your eye contact to make sure you knew they were hearing you?
Do the same for others.
30. Communication, communication, communication.
Screens, Wildflowers, and Dancing in the Kitchen
31. Screens are disconnecting us. There’s no gentle way to put this, baby: you need to get off your screen and interact with a real human. Your very life depends on it. Don’t you dare turn into a robot.
32. Go outside. Feel the sunshine on your face. Lay in the grass. Listen to the wind blowing through the trees, and the birds singing. Watch the wildflowers dance.
33. Move your body. I don’t need to remind you how important it is to move your body. Ok, maybe I do. Sometimes we all need reminding.
I was active growing up, and for most of my young adult life. I danced, played sports, ran races. But it wasn’t until I spent three years living in an oppressive, chronically high-stress environment (Juba, South Sudan, 2012–2015), that I developed a true appreciation for movement.
My ability to exercise was limited by various factors. This, and the amount of stress I was dealing with (and therapy and learning about trauma), helped me see how connected the mind and body are, and how important it is for both our physical and mental health, to move our bodies!
Find what you enjoy doing: running, hiking, yoga, playing a ball-sport, tap-dancing, and do it as often as you can.
34. Cultivate gratitude. Find at least one thing a day to be grateful for, and write it down. If you do this for a year, you will also turn into a bird (see #8). Again, just kidding. Or am I? Seriously though, gratitude gives you wings.
35. WONDER. Keep wonder alive.
36. Open yourself up to the possibility that God exists. Too many mysteriously beautiful things have happened that point to a brilliant, loving Creator. Find out for yourself what you believe.
37. DANCE. Dancing is the most outright manifestation of joy. It’s liberating, story-telling, and downright fun. The good news?
You don’t have to do it well to enjoy it: you just have to do it.
The next time you’re making food in the kitchen by yourself, put your favorite music on and dance. Let me know how it goes.