Tuesday, January 29, 2008

I've learned a few things . . .

As I mentioned the other day, Une Femme tagged me to participate in a meme, Lessons in Hindsight. Thinking about this has been an interesting endeavour, especially since I have mixed feelings about the value of hindsight. But for what it's worth, here is my list of a few things I've learned so far:

1. Let me begin by saying that something I've learned -- through hindsight? -- is that I'm not sure how useful hindsight is. Your own mistakes can be very valuable ways of learning how to deal with what life hands you. I was blown away several years ago when my then 20-year old daughter, her cook's papers in hand, pleased because she felt "good to go," exulted about the world and life in front of her: the way she phrased it was that she was young enough to make mistakes and still recover. Yes, as a parent this sentiment clearly made me quiver, but barring a few mistakes which could have set her back very seriously, she was quite right. She tends to learn experientially, and while I would wish she could learn from my experience, and while she is getting somewhat better about consulting those of us with relevant experience, she tends to make much more risky decisions than I ever would, and so far, she's not doing too badly. It took me a while to learn this, so I count it as one of my most valuable lessons about hindsight.

2. On a somewhat similar note, I have learned gradually that the children you might predict will grow into juvenile delinquents quite often surprise you. Two young fellows from our old neighbourhood, for example, who all the neighbours despaired of for their absolute lack of constraint -- one of them, at six, startled me with a question in my upstairs hallway -- he had let himself in! But both seem to have grown into solid citizens, representing a phenomenon I have learned to recognize: we tend to judge children and young adults by how they impinge on our lives, failing to see them in the fuller context which might give us more faith. We're also quick to judge others' parenting, not always with enough information to do that. I've learned to reserve judgement, if possible.

3. I've also learned that a bit of praise or encouragement is welcomed by parents, who are often concerned about how well they're doing. Just remarking on a parents' patience or even just offering a sympathetic comment about how tough it is to manage an over-tired toddler on a bus can go a long way to reinforcing good parenting.

4. One of the most important things I've slowly learned is that no matter how strongly I believe in an issue or how well-informed I might be about it, there is nothing to be gained in arguing with someone who is not motivated to listen. Some people get joy simply from the act of arguing, but for me, it's about an exchange of information and ideas with the possibility that either of us might learn to see in a new light. If that's not a mutual position, I just let go now.

5. The closest I would get to offering practical advice to a young adult would be to say that buying a house early (I was 24, Paul was 26, our daughter was 1) was the best financial decision we ever made, and has led to the relative financial security we now enjoy. I would quickly qualify that advice by acknowledging that these are very different times -- houses are much more expensive (although interest rates are so much lower -- our first mortage was at 10.5%; my sister's was once at 18%!). I'd also point out that one of my neighbours thinks that youth should not be wasted on paying down a mortgage -- it's all about perspective!

6. In a similar vein, I will never, ever regret that I had my children young (my oldest was born when I was 23, my youngest when I was 32), even though it meant that I got a late start career-wise. For me, in hindsight, this decision was one of the best I've made. Again, it's not something I'd necessarily recommend, given the necessary tradeoffs, but it worked for me.

7. And, in hindsight, while some recommend against marrying early, I married at 21, and have so far enjoyed 33 years of marriage with a great guy. I'm glad none of my kids married so early, but my daughter has now been married for over three years (having lived together for twelve) to her high-school sweetheart, and they show every sign of having a lasting relationship. Again, a very individual decision, but my hindsight suggests that it can work.

8. I spent so many years feeling incomplete and concerned that I didn't "know what I wanted to be when I grew up" and sharing that frustration with family and friends. In hindsight, I wish I'd appreciated more how rich my life already was and not worried about what I saw as a lack (of education, of career, of status too, I admit).

9. I also wish I'd known, during the miserable years of trying to complete my dissertation, that if I did the work, I'd get it done. The process involved so much self-doubt, psychologically excruciating and often debilitating, yet when I look back at the actual research and writing, I sometimes wonder what the problem was. The work itself could probably have been done in half the time if not for the agonizing.

10. Perhaps the biggest thing I've learned so far is that time does heal, that we can survive or overcome blows or challenges. Although we've been very fortunate in the past several decades, I've experienced a few tough losses, and I've seen friends experience devastating ones, and even these are followed by surprising, often inspiring, recoveries. As for the smaller upsets -- having the car broken into and CD panel ripped out; finding the boat motor cowling badly bashed after a storm; finding that you owe money on this year's income tax; finding out that your supervisor's trashed your latest chapter -- I know from experience that by three days that sick-to-the-stomach sensation will have gone and the budget begins to adjust. Meanwhile, bubble baths, good magazines, a new mystery novel, or a DVD, chocolate, and lots of music help get me over the hump. (Not to trivialize more difficult losses where the time frame is much bigger and the depression requires other help.)

Because this is a fairly demanding meme, I'm not going to tag anyone with it, but would invite you to participate if it intrigues you -- if you do, let me know, and I'll very happily link to that post.

3 comments:

  1. Great insights! I've been slow to come to #4, but in the last decade or so have become much more of a "pick your battles" kind of person.

    I had a good friend who also struggled and agonized through her dissertation. I never realized how politicized the process could be, but she finally made it through, and probably would have benefitted from your insight.

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  2. These are wise words indeed and I enjoyed reading them.
    #2 is bang on, Students have continually suprised me with their successes in life. My favourite story was a boy who I was convinced would be in prison by the age of 20. He was, but as a guard, he really enjoyed seeing my face when he told me!
    #4 I am tired of conflict, I feel it so much at work and at home, I have become quite passive.
    #6 Totally agree. I had my last child just before my 40th Birthday I am so utterly tired all the time, it is much better to have them young.
    I would love to take the baton of this meme, but I appear to keep making the same mistakes, maybe next year!

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  3. Thanks for getting me to think about this, Pseu. The list's not as snappy as yours, but I can see I've learned a few things along the way.

    Alison, maybe hindsight will show all your "mistakes" to be worthwhile for reasons unseeable right now -- while I had the energy of youth, raising my kids, I didn't always have the patience or smarts I might have now. I'd love to sit down with you over a cup of tea and talk more about it! Meanwhile, we peek at each other's lives through our blogs.

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I'd love to hear your response to my post. Agree, disagree, even go off on a tangent, I love to know you're out there, readers. Let's chat, shall we? I apologize, though, for the temporary necessity of the Word Verification -- spam comments have been tiresomely numerous lately, and I'm hoping to break that pattern.

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