37

When I was 11, someone gave me a VHS copy of Monty Python and the Holy Grail for my birthday. Early in the film, King Arthur spies a distant castle, and asks a local peasant about the castle’s current residents.

King Arthur: Old woman!
Peasant: Man!
King Arthur: Man; sorry. What knight lives in that castle over there?
Peasant: I’m 37!
King Arthur: What?
Peasant: I’m 37; I’m not old!
King Arthur: Well, I can’t just call you “man”.
Peasant: You could say “Dennis”.
King Arthur: I didn’t know you were called Dennis!
Peasant: Well, you didn’t bother to find out, did you?

“You didn’t bother to find out”. It’s a statement that puts the burden of interest and discovery entirely on the other person. That’s a problem if you’re looking to make friends as an adult, and understanding that can help prepare you for such a challenge. But for most of my life, this wasn’t something I considered when I thought about turning 37; I just thought about the guy defending himself against an unstated accusation– “I’m 37; I’m not old”.

The last time I published one of these birthday introspection pieces was two years ago (link), and I spent most of it going over everything I’d done and learned about myself over the previous year. If I’m ever to learn anything, the focus needs to shift to the world and the things I’ve learned about my place within it.

In the absence of a simple truth, we will accept a simple lie.

Perhaps you’ve been in this situation: You’re having a conversation with someone, expressing frustration about a bad customer service experience you’ve had with some large company. Other people around you suddenly take interest. They want a reason to dismiss this company. What you’re telling them doesn’t even need to be true– they’re listening, and they will act on what you tell them. It doesn’t even have to be about a company. It could be about people from a particular part of the country, or the world. It could be about a particular branch of science, or a religious faith. It could be about people of a particular sexual orientation. If it’s something someone doesn’t already understand, he or she will be interested in reasons to avoid gaining an understanding.

It’s the root of all prejudice: If you make assumptions about everyone of a particular race, you can use those assumptions to justify dismissing all of them, relieving yourself of the responsibility of understanding them and considering each of them as individual people. This is human nature, and it’s on display as far back into recorded history as you can go. Each of us knows the danger of this. But in the information age, when people vastly different from ourselves are presenting their perspectives to us en masse throughout each day, the temptations– and dangers– of this are greater than ever.

When I assume that I understand, I prevent myself from learning. Learning begets knowledge, which begets wisdom, which is the seed of personal growth. Without personal growth, there is no happiness.

Accept everything.

This is something I got from reading excerpts of published works by the Dalai Lama. I don’t understand or agree with everything he’s written or said, certainly, but this one came at a time in my life when I really needed to hear it. Things will happen in life and in the world that are difficult to bear, or even comprehend. My own lack of control over these things makes me frustrated and angry. I spend so much time, invest so much emotion, fighting against acceptance of something that has already happened, something that is already true. The amount of unnecessary stress I’m taking on is a problem, sure, but what’s worse is that I’m investing my time into things that aren’t helpful.

Consider this example: Someone that you thought was a friend tells you that he hates you and never wants to see you again. I don’t understand this, you think. I can’t accept this until I understand why this has happened. The trouble is, you cannot actually understand why this has happened until you accept that this person is no longer your friend. Once you have done this, you can determine whether or not there is anything you can learn from this situation. Was it something I did? Would I have done anything differently? If so, then you can approach your friend with consideration for the wrong you have done him, and even if you cannot repair the friendship, you can at least show that you understand how you hurt him. Without this initial acceptance, you’ll be asking the wrong questions: Did he really mean it? Is he just crazy or something? Can I just pretend this never happened and wait for this storm to pass?

I thought about this example for awhile, and the first lesson I took from it was that it’s important to accept your new reality when it changes. Quickly I realized that the real lesson was much broader than that:

Accept everything.

Demographics will change. Opinions will change. Icons will change. Mediums will disappear, and new ones will replace them. Some of my skills will become obsolete, and I will learn new ones. Friends will come and go. I will get older. I will lose my hearing. I will die. Accept everything. If I can change these things, that’s the next step. My first task is to accept. The reality is that there is very little about the world for which I am responsible. Some things I can change; most, I cannot, and perhaps, should not. Inability to accept this leads to exponential anguish.

You must tend to yourself before you can tend to anyone else.

This one seems obvious, doesn’t it? Physician, heal thyself. It’s something we hear so often, in so many different forms– most notably the airline safety instruction video shown before any flight, which instructs us to secure our own oxygen mask before assisting anyone else with their mask. Only within the past year have I realized the degree to which these instructions conflict with so much of the other advice we’re commonly given.

I had a conversation recently with a coworker who was going through a divorce. She’d been to several different counselors, and on their urging, had decided to go back to school and become an engineer. “The biggest thing for me,” she said, “was the realization that I deserved to be happy. I needed to realize that it was OK for me to put myself first.” I responded with something akin to that first paragraph up there; I probably even said something about the airline safety video.

“That’s just it,” she replied. “No one ever told me that I should put myself first.”

Be selfless. Think about your family. Think about your community. Be a good host. We hear these things all the time. What gets lost in all this is the need to ensure your own safety and stability first. The man who pretends to be happy so that his friends won’t feel uncomfortable is building relationships on a lie. The mother who refuses to pursue her own interests teaches her daughter to do the same. Both of these people are miserable, in ways that cannot be ignored forever. Their misery will eventually consume them, and potentially, the people around them.

In life, we have responsibilities to many people: to our families, our friends, our employers. But before all that, we each have a responsibility to ourselves.

What’s next, then?

I started this piece by talking about our friend Dennis, so let’s reconsider what he said.

Today, I’m 37. Am I old? It’s an interesting question, but really, it doesn’t matter. Another year has passed.

“Well, you didn’t bother to find out, did you?” Not so long ago, I thought of my relationship with many of the people in my life in this cynical way. There’s so much more to me! Why aren’t you interested? The truth is that it has nothing to do with me. Understanding other people is difficult, and I must forgive others if they’d prefer to avoid this. To some degree, the burden is on me to be more interesting. But I also have a responsibility to be more accepting– of my role in any relationships with people, of their wants and needs, and of the actual reasons why something works or does not work, lest I learn the wrong lessons from success or failure.

I have a responsibility– to myself, to my family, to my employer– to be the best human I know how to be. Nutrition, fitness, understanding of self, they’re all a part of this. Ensuring they remain among my top priorities is challenging, particularly during weeks when I’m spending more hours than usual at work. But when I sacrifice these things, I am a less effective human. One year from now, when I am (hopefully) able to write another one of these, my goal is to be able to tell you that I have never been a more effective human. What will the world be like in one year? How will it change?

Who knows?

Featured image provided by Freepik.