In 1991 a writer named H. Jackson Brown, compiled a little book entitled Live and Learn and Pass It On. It became an instant bestseller. The premise of the book is simple. All of us, regardless of our age, have learned a lot about life that might be worthwhile to pass on to others. The book contains 159 pages of learned wisdom—most expressed in a single sentence. Here are four samples:
1. I’ve learned that the best way to appreciate something is to be without it for a while. (age 14)
2. I’ve learned that just because I have pain doesn’t mean I have to be a pain. (age 83)
3. I’ve learned that often worry is a substitute for action. (age 50)
4. I’ve learned that you can’t hide a piece of broccoli in a glass of milk. (age 7)
In 2001, I gave a talk using this book as my introduction. I then shared with the group several things I have learned about life and spoke about each one. Here are three:
I’ve learned that I am always a little more than any situation I find myself in. I am, for example, always more than a particular role I find myself in. Humorist Erma Bombeck once said, “No matter how old you are, when you go home you are 12 years old.” Our parents can sometimes see us only in the role of son or daughter, and they can fail to see us as the responsible adults we have become. Once, when I I was with a nun friend, 33, at a mall, we unexpectedly ran into her mother. It was early spring. As we chatted, her mother suddenly yanked the sleeve of her jacket and asked, “Is that jacket warm enough?”
Remembering we are more than any situation, can help us stay healthy and balanced. We are more than a son or daughter, wife or husband, mother or father, teacher, employee, citizen, a patient with cancer, a person of a certain sexual orientation, an immigrant, an inmate, a child, a teenager, a middle aged person, a senior citizen, etc. If we reduce ourselves to only one aspect of who we are, we might be neglecting other enriching aspects of our personhood.
I’ve learned that I am ultimately responsible for my own happiness–and everyone else is ultimately responsible for theirs. If we are unhappy, it is easy to blame our unhappiness on something or someone else. We can think things such as these: “my parents didn’t give me the love I needed… I had lousy teachers… I’m too short (too tall)… I never was given a break… nobody likes me… I was in the wrong place at the wrong time.” Anthony de Mello wrote: “We are not selfish when we live in such a way as to make ourselves happy, for that is our responsibility. Rather, we are selfish when we demand that others live their lives in such a way as to make us happy.”
The greatest act of love (especially as parents and as teachers!) is to help others assume personal responsibility for their own happiness. We can help them do this in many ways: by loving them… by giving them the freedom to love… by not rescuing them every time they are hurt, crabby, sad, or angry… by being honest with them… by admitting we cannot make them happy… and by entrusting them to God.
God is here—alive and acting. I’ve learned to trust that God is present in every situation—even the negative and unpleasant ones. This doesn’t mean I always see or feel God’s presence and actions in such situations. But my experience and my faith assure me of God’s presence always. Someone has said: “God endlessly communicates, ‘I am with you. And the way I am with you is love!'” I really believe that!
Do any of these bits of wisdom speak to you?
Now it’s YOUR turn. I invite you to share some of the things you’ve learned in life that are worth passing on to others. They can be serious, funny, or somewhere in between!
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One of the sisters who made the autumn retreat with me recently, reminded all of us of the beautiful song “Love Changes Everything” by Andrew Lloyd Webber. That song seems a fitting conclusion to today’s reflection. Here it is sung by Michael Ball and Il Divo.
I hope some of you will share below some of the things you’ve learned in life. I’d love to hear from you!