Later this year, in the month of September, I'll begin the first year of the next 50 years of my life. Even for someone who plans to live to 100, it's a daunting anniversary. Still, I have a few things going for me that dilutes the anxiety. Chiefly, while the idea of turning 50 is hair-raising if I dwell on it, I also recognize that far too many are denied the opportunity to reach that milestone. In a word, I'm grateful.
As a writer of historical fiction, I'm in the business of taking episodes of human activity and re-branding them into nuggets of information that today's audience can relate to. That task has given me a surplus layer of enlightenment that's expanded my perception of everything as mundane as meal planning, to advising my children when they are discouraged. When any New Year begins, common themes revolve around renewal and moving forward. But looking back has its merits as well. After all, as Winston Churchill famously said, “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it”, and the art of Re-Branding History flourishes.
In the weeks and months approaching my landmark birthday, I've caught myself reviewing my life's journey more frequently than normal. I wouldn't say it's in a I-wish-I-would-have-done-this-instead-of-that manner. If nothing else, I do understand that everything I've done has led to the me I am today. And generally, thank Heaven, I actually like myself. (Not enough to visit the doctor more than once every 10 years, but that's a blog for another day.) I suppose what I'm really doing is mentally preparing a guide to the coming decades, in hopes of avoiding the laughable, naive and downright painful mistakes of my youth. Some have called this exercise “A Letter To My Younger Self”. I just call it rewarding and life-affirming.
When everyone else is wearing legwarmers in June, listen to your inner beach bum, and sport your shorts!
Societal norms and standards are nothing if not limiting. From fashion and music, gender roles and diet fads, the celestial harpies who run the Rules of Society will always find a way to poke their noses in. Years of overstuffed closets, overflowing cupboards and constantly empty pockets have proved that no matter what, none of the “Rules” will bring happiness, or a sense of security. In America, and most developed countries, there are no punishments for morality infractions or standards violations. In fact, many people trade on their individuality, developing successful lives based on their own uniqueness.
Bottom line: Be yourself. Wear what you like. Send Christmas cards because you want to, eat what tastes good, love whomever you wish, and know that a confident smile is more attractive than the most glamorous clothing, stylish hair and expensive cosmetics, combined.
Historical Re-brand No. Two
Bill Gates was a Harvard dropout. Henry Ford was broke multiple times. Walt Disney was accused of lacking imagination. Thomas Edison was told by his teachers that he was “too stupid to learn anything.” Oprah Winfrey was fired from a reporting job because she was “unfit for TV”. Louisa May Alcott worked as a servant.*
Humans are very good at assigning character qualities to life's chapters. They are also very short-sighted. People tend to think in terms of “days” or “weeks”, now and then stretching to “months”. Many folks, however, do live well into their seventies and beyond. That's a lot of time to play with! Appreciate and embrace failures, not because emotional pain is fun, but because failure can be a real avenue to achievement. Although defined as a lack of success, failure can refocus a determined individual, providing a process of elimination to springboard into a reinvented mindset. After all, as Babe Ruth once said, “Every strike brings me closer to the next home run.”
Bottom line: Don't fear failure. It might turn out to be your best friend.
Napoleon Bonaparte is considered one of history's greatest military leaders, even establishing a code of civil laws that resembles the American Constitution. His exploits, campaigns and victories were numerous, but in the end, he was forced to renounce his throne, eventually banished to a small island, where he later died.
Napoleon’s incredible life is just one historical example of how fleeting, insubstantial, and ultimately meaningless success can be, if not pursued for the right reason. As I study the events of human history, I see this pattern repeated again and again. Success, if misplaced, can undermine a person's core values and shake his or her foundations. Achieving success is a wonderful thing, but not at the expense of one's inner peace, code of ethics or quality of life. Accomplishment in itself can also lead to defeat, opening one up to be “toppled” by the next rooster who wants a turn crowing from the top of the dung heap.
Bottom line: Find what make you happy and cultivate that. Trust your version of success and don't compare yourself to others, or listen to unwanted advice.
Laughter is the best medicine, even when you're staring down the barrel of war, plague, and civil unrest.
To me, historical records are a direct line to many of the answers we still seek today. Modern technology, science and medicine aside, I've noticed that folk of the past seemed to have their own sense of perspective and humor. People of Tudor England lived with the reality that they could be taken and beheaded in a moment's notice, if they were just seen speaking with the “wrong” person. Still, festivals were held, music played, poetry written. Londoners in WWII were tasked to “Keep Calm and Carry On”, and so they did; bowing to caution only in the form of shipping city children to the countryside for safekeeping. Even during years of epidemics throughout Europe, dances were held, Holy Days observed, laughter ringing out all the while. Lighthearted habits can protect the human spirit from fracture and decay. In my opinion, communities of bygone eras were just that; communities. They lived together, laughed together, bickered with each other, mended their fences, and grieved when one was removed due to old age, illness or injury. They were still prepared, still did their duty by each other and their country. But while they were managing the day-to-day work, their optimism and faith kept them happier than any technology or government promise.
Bottom line: Laugh at sunrise, for at sunset you may weep.
Dictators usually meet a grim demise.
The desire to control our surroundings is a quality that's woven into the fabric of humanity. A completely understandable trait, it can be quite beneficial. Taken too far, however, obsessive control is it's own pitfall. The hunt for, and capture of absolute control of our lives, and of others, can mutate into what amounts to an addiction. Control feels good. But much like any other addiction, control can break down relationships, shatter faith, and lead to a false sense of security. Keeping it small helps. Pride in a well-made bed. A clean and pleasant home. Sharing feelings with loved ones. Adding to savings every week. Taking time to listen to others. Smiling. Small things that add up to a stable, balanced life.
Bottom line: Relax the death grip on control.
Queen Elizabeth I, along with her Naval commanders and some well-timed weather systems, soundly defeated the formidable Spanish Armada in 1588. The victory was widely seen as a miracle from God; indicating divine approval of the Protestant Reformation sweeping England and the Continent at the time.
Human events on the magnitude of the defeat of the Spanish Armada always provide perspective.
All too often, people blame their woes on stress. Dictionary.com lists seven definitions of stress. Dangling off the end of the previous six is the only one which could be applied as most use it today:
“Physiology. a specific response by the body to a stimulus, as fear or pain, that disturbs or interferes with the normal physiological equilibrium of an organism.”
A review of history indicates that the idea of using stress as a scapegoat for all manner of woes, let alone the concept of stress as a physiologic malady is relatively new. People like Queen Elizabeth I, Joan of Arc, Christopher Columbus, George Washington, Winston Churchill, and John F. Kennedy didn't use stress as a way to give up, give in, or acquiesce when the odds seem so incredibly steep. They simply did the best they could, believed what they were doing was right, didn't quit, and had some faith. Regardless of our circumstances, stress shouldn't limit us or provide excuses for less than our best. Be brave, and carry on...
After all, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” ~ John F. Kennedy
Bottom line: Don't even use the word stress. Accept your failures, work towards your goals, and never, ever give up.
"How A Forgotten Journal Helped Me Move Beyond A Painful Past"
"A Letter To My Younger Self"
Casting future phobias aside!
Auden Johnson tells herself, Don't Worry! Daylight Is Coming!!