Twenty seventeen has been a year of triumph and of failure, a year of learning to take risks and make hard decisions, a year of great highs and devastating lows. Reflecting on the year that was, I have learnt many things, but four lessons stand out most. I am still learning and growing and making many mistakes along the way, but I am thankful for the life that I have, and the God who has made it all possible.
It’s OK to say ‘NO’…
I’ve never been very good at saying ‘no’. I struggle with wanting to be available for everyone, all the time, yet not having the energy to sustain such a lifestyle. Part of this struggle is the classic FOMO (fear of missing out) on fun and potentially life-changing experiences. Yet there is also guilt accompanied with saying ‘no’ – even if that guilt is unfounded. This past year I’ve been learning that it is OK to say no from the beginning when an opportunity arises than to have to pull out at the last minute. While people may be disappointed that you turn them down with plenty of time to spare, they will be far more disappointed if you do not give them significant notice.
Part of learning to say no is recognising your limitations and may involve realigning your expectations of yourself. We have not all been given the same capacity, and life circumstances may alter your capacity to be present. For me, fluctuating health means that my capacity is fluid, and what I can do in one season may be different in another. This year I had to take a break from a ministry I loved doing – the highlight of my week – because my health and life circumstances meant that I did not have the energy to serve effectively. This was hard and I still feel a sense of loss, but it has given me the freedom to engage in a different form of ministry which better suits my capacity.
Furthermore, I have learnt that we can only control our own expectations, and fearing others’ expectations is a burden that doesn’t need to be carried. True friends love you and accept you as you are, and will be understanding when you have to say no to their plans. People who put pressure on you, or who unfairly judge you as lazy or unreliable, perhaps aren’t true friends after all. It’s important that we make it as clear as possible to people in our daily life what we can and can’t do, and why – and to not be ashamed of the capacity we have, however limited it may be.
People will be critical of what they don’t understand
We are creatures of habit and order. Part of this is our biological design – our bodies and minds function according to pattern, and when they don’t there is disease and abnormality. Children learn and develop in similar ways – with a degree of individual difference – and so we are wired to like what we like and dislike what we don’t understand. This is evident across the spectrum of human behaviour, and is fascinating to observe in our own lives and the lives of others. Yet, it also has negative effects on our relationships, and can lead to discord and, at an extreme, discrimination and injustice.
In the past I have really struggled with people being critical of aspects of my life (and the lives of loved ones) that they don’t understand. When I was younger I had kids come up to me in playgrounds and ask me why my sister – who has Down Syndrome – looked “funny”. When I developed chronic fatigue in high school, I lost friends who didn’t understand why I was sick all the time and couldn’t come to parties. I have friends now who, though I know they don’t mean to be hurtful, regularly make jokes about my diet. Working as a teacher’s aide I see kids constantly teasing each other for things that are beyond their control, and shunning those who they perceive to be ‘different’.
While these are all more serious examples, it is sad when people are critical of good, honourable things that they don’t understand – or are different to how things are “always done”. This year a group of three friends and I started up a bible study because we were, for various reasons, unable to attend the established bible studies for our church service. While some were encouraging, many of our peers were critical (though well-intended) of what we were doing – purely because it wasn’t like other bible studies. We didn’t have a designated ‘leader’, but used books written by Bible scholars that required us to do the studies ourselves during the week and come prepared to have an in-depth discussion.
Our bible study has been the highlight of my year, and has led to huge spiritual growth in all of us. We are four women simply meeting together to read and study God’s word, apply it to our lives, keep each other accountable and pray with and for each other. We took a situation that was beyond our control, and chose to not give up meeting together, but to do something different that met our needs. This is just a small example, but through it I have learnt that it is important to persevere with what is good even when people unfairly judge, and for myself – to try to be more accepting of what I don’t understand.
Failure enables you to learn and grow
As a high achiever and chronic people-pleaser, I have always been afraid of failure. My expectations of myself in the academic world, as well as in my relationships, have always been to strive for perfection – which is not healthy, as perfection is impossible. I recognise that I am sinful and broken, and no matter how hard I try, I will always make mistakes and disappoint people. Yet despite this knowledge, I regularly struggle with perfectionism and am never fully satisfied with my achievements, no matter how great.
Early this year, for the first time in my life, I failed an assessment. I was not alone, as my mark was still higher than over half the course, despite being below 50%. Needless to say, I was devastated, and couldn’t believe that the result was real. This may seem like an over-reaction, and in hindsight I can see that it was, but my confidence was crushed. I felt physically sick for days and couldn’t sleep properly due to anxiety. I had worked so hard, and yet my performance didn’t reflect this. My reaction was a combination of putting too much pressure on myself to perform to an unreachable standard, as well as a lifelong battle with placing my identity in my achievements instead of in God.
Ironically, failing that assessment was probably one of the best things that could have happened to me. Instead of giving up – which is what I felt like doing – it drove me to work harder and practice until I truly understood the content I’d stumbled over. In the past I would have adopted a fixed mindset and assumed that because I’d failed, that meant I was a failure and would never achieve anything again. Instead, failure taught me to adopt a growth mindset, to see the result as not defining my whole person, to strive after challenge and learn from my mistakes. I’m still learning, but I’m finding that when my performance/behaviour doesn’t meet my expectations, instead of falling apart, I work out how to do better next time. When I got my final results for the semester, I was more excited by my mark for that subject than the subjects I got high distinctions in – because I struggled and overcame.
You are where you are meant to be
Part of our human nature is the pull to compare our lives to the lives of others. As I approach my mid-twenties, I find it hard to not feel inadequate when I see friends my age reaching life milestones – graduating university, obtaining full time work, buying property, adventuring around the world and even getting married and having kids. I worry that I am not achieving these milestones in the same timeline too – and wonder if I am doing life right. Ironically, as I share these worries with friends, I find they too share my worries – even if they have achieved the life milestones I’m comparing myself to!
The reality is, we’re never satisfied with what we have, as there is always something more to obtain. Other people will place their expectations on you; the number of recently married friends I have talked to who are constantly asked when they’ll have kids proves this point. We need to learn to be content with what we have, and trust that the timeline of our life is exactly what it is meant to be. There is no perfect age to graduate, no perfect age to get married, no perfect age to buy a house. Our unique life circumstances may mean that certain milestones take longer to achieve than others, or maybe are never achieved, and that is totally OK. Comparison only ever leads to discontentment.
As a Christian, I find huge comfort in knowing that my life is not a series of chance events, but has been designed and ordained by a loving, wise God who has greater purposes than I can imagine for myself. I know that the purpose of my life is not to graduate uni or to travel around the world or to get married and live in a nice house. The purpose of my life is to enjoy God and glorify him, forever. He has given me everything I need to live a life of godliness right now, and has promised that my future is secure in Christ. So instead of looking at others, and feeling that my life is insignificant in comparison, I can look to God and know that everything that happens in my life – whether good or bad – has eternal significance.
Goodbye 2017…hello 2018!