The End of the Story

I’ve shared before on this blog that one of my greatest, most important beliefs is that everything turns out okay in the end. The struggle may be long and tough, but you’ll come out on the other side a better person, and your reward will be happiness. For me, that has always meant that somewhere, somewhen, I will finally feel at home and at peace with where I am and who I’m with.

I’ve always felt this way: I remember in 9th grade English class, when we would read short stories that ended abruptly with no resolution whatsoever, and I would say that the stories were garbage. My teacher wisely observed that maybe my problem with the story wasn’t that it was bad, but that it didn’t have a perfect storybook ending. He thought that maybe I would understand when I got older. What is it with teachers and always knowing more than we do?

Lately I’ve been thinking about this idea a lot, that everything always works out in the end. I recently watched Boyhood, an incredibly interesting and innovative film that came out in 2014. Boyhood chronicles the life of a boy, but also the life of his mother as he’s growing up. Mom marries and divorces and remarries and gets a job, and then remarries again, and every time the guys are jerks. At the end of the movie as the boy is going off to college, Mom says plainly that this is the worst day of her life- that from here on out, she’s basically just going to get old and die. The boy eventually realizes that his mom is just confused about life in her forties as he is as a young adult.

We have this dominant narrative: go to school, go to college, get a degree, find somebody who makes you happy, settle down, have a career, have a family, the end. But the older I get, the more I realize that this isn’t necessarily how it works out for everybody. And even if that is the story, there’s actually more. You actually do things as an adult other than raising kids- and you’d better, otherwise when they leave your life is going to be a mess.

But what I’m realizing is more than the idea that life isn’t linear. Not everything turns out okay. I just finished a book called Commencement, which tells the story of four Smith grads and their lives before, during, and after college. Throughout the course of the story, each girl undergoes tragedy: death of a parent, sexual abuse, estrangement from family… one of them is even believed to be murdered. The book was a gripping read, but I was surprised by the end. I won’t give anything away, but essentially nothing is resolved. The one who has always wanted to be a writer but never had the guts still isn’t writing. The one who couldn’t be honest with her family about the relationship she’s in still doesn’t know what to do. The murder thing gets figured out, but all of the issues surrounding it don’t. And yet, the book ends. It’s not like the series finale of some television show in which everything miraculously gets wrapped up and each character finds exactly what he or she needs to be happy in life.

So why does the book end before everything is fixed?

That’s the big question. I’m still coming to terms with it: not every story has a happy ending. Not everyone gets to have it figured out. Why do some people get to settle and for some people, the story never ends? Maybe it doesn’t depend on the kind of story, but instead on the kind of person you are. Maybe if you’re someone who’s naturally happy and naturally feels settled anywhere, you’ll get that storybook ending. But plenty of people are always searching for something, and maybe the searching is more important than what they actually find. The process of exploring and learning and becoming more than you were before can’t possibly just stop when somebody or someplace new comes into your life.

For my entire life, when someone has asked what my biggest goal in life is, I have said that I want to find my soul mate. I’m starting to realize that maybe this isn’t the right goal, not because there’s not a good match for me out there, but maybe because my soul mate- the thing that literally matches my soul- is the act of searching. Searching for more knowledge, more people, more challenges, more new experiences so that I can constantly be growing. A great match for me will be a person who loves to do those things too, or maybe someone who balances me out. But I’m coming to terms with the idea that maybe I won’t ever feel like my story has come to a close, because that’s not my personality.

Saying that everything turns out okay in the end necessitates an end. And maybe there doesn’t ever have to be an end. Maybe the story just gets to keep going. And that’s perfectly okay for me.

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Fifty-Four Things I’ve Learned in Boston

Six months ago today was my first real day living in Boston. Within a period of ten weeks, I had graduated from college, moved across the country, ended a serious relationship, and started a new job. I was about to work with middle schoolers, be part of a team, and learn to be a leader, all while dealing with the challenges of moving somewhere with a new culture, climate, and people.

If I had known how hard it was going to be, I’m not sure I would have done it, so thank goodness for that human inability to perceive things unless we’re dealing with them in the moment. Today, for no particular reason, I began to reflect on how much easier things have gotten and how much I appreciate every single component of life here- even the ones that once scared me, like being single, or being cold. I began to write down the things that I’ve learned in the last six months, and before I knew it, I had quite a list. So, with no particular organization, here are the 54 lessons I’ve learned in the past six months I’ve been in Boston.

  1. Art- music, art, poetry, whatever- can literally save lives. Do not underestimate it, and give it a chance.
  2. There is not only a place for creativity in the workplace, there is a necessity.
  3. Truly, the key to connecting with people is finding out what motivates them.
  4. We can do so much more than we think. We change in the moments when we say, “I can’t do this anymore, but I’m going to go do this.”
  5. Keeping up with the people who are always there for you is essential to happiness.
  6. The perfect team is one in which each member treats everyone else like they’re more important than they treat themselves.
  7. Setting goals is everything. Achieving them is more.
  8. There’s nothing like the feeling that you matter.
  9. There’s nothing like helping someone else to understand that you believe they matter.
  10. Surprising others with kindness is uplifting for everyone.
  11. Middle school isn’t scary; change is scary, and it just happens a lot in middle school. Middle school is actually a pretty magical place.
  12. Sometimes all you need at the end of a horrible day is to tell somebody about it.
  13. You never know what’s inside your mind until you write it down.
  14. Huge things are achieved when you do things before you’re quite ready.
  15. It’s hard to believe, but sometimes one kind comment really can change everything.
  16. No matter how busy you are, hold on to what makes you you.
  17. Be passionate. It doesn’t matter what about. And share it.
  18. It’s never inappropriate to tell someone how much you appreciate them.
  19. Humans really can adapt to anything: weather, relationships, or adolescents.
  20. It may be scary, but ask for help. It builds connections and it makes you better.
  21. The most incredible people are the ones who appreciate and embrace others for all their quirks.
  22. Overthinking is toxic to growth.
  23. Push yourself. Always.
  24. Even if it’s hard, there’s not much that’s impossible to laugh about later.
  25. Learning to laugh at yourself is difficult but so worth it.
  26. Honesty, clarity, and transparency earn respect.
  27. Trust yourself.
  28. It is possible to enjoy going to work every day. We all deserve a job like that.
  29. There’s no harm in trying something new and not being good at it. You may surprise yourself.
  30. “Can’t” and “should” are possibly the two worst words in the English language.
  31. There’s no one right way to go about anything. Don’t let anyone tell you there is.
  32. Cherish the past. It’s ok to be nostalgic and relive memories.
  33. A great leader is invisible, existing behind the scenes and empowering others.
  34. Sometimes you can’t think your way out of a problem. Sometimes all you can do is call on a friend, close your eyes, or write down the lyrics of your favorite song. Calming down works wonders.
  35. Having something to look forward to is incredibly motivating.
  36. Everyone has challenges. It’s okay to admit yours. It’s even liberating.
  37. There is a bright side to EVERYTHING. Challenge yourself to find it.
  38. Choose your battles. Not everything can be perfect.
  39. Sometimes what you thought wasn’t good enough is actually a lot more interesting and fun.
  40. Take advantage of your talents. Share them and use them.
  41. Never in the future will you say, “Gosh, I wish I had written about my life less.”
  42. Be proud of your team. Don’t apologize. But don’t be a sore loser.
  43. There’s always a place for being human at work. Nobody will be mad about team building, getting to talk about themselves, or playing a game. It’s not wasting time because it’s what makes us people, and that’s what we want to be.
  44. There’s a beauty in realizing that every person, even someone you don’t like, is passionate about something.
  45. Sometimes the things we think make us different don’t matter much at all.
  46. It’s unbelievable, but it’s possible to wake up every day for someone who doesn’t know that they are what you live for.
  47. It’s okay to change your mind. It feels good to be the type of person who lets that happen.
  48. Never settle with the people around you. There are always more wonderful, inspirational people out there that you have yet to meet.
  49. Human connection and belonging are at the root of everything.
  50. Feeling cold is not the worst thing that has ever happened to humanity. It’s not necessary to make a big deal out of it.
  51. Somehow, both kids’ honesty and their lack of an ability to lie are both extremely entertaining.
  52. Even if you don’t agree or understand at all, what other people are feeling is real and true to them. You don’t have the ability or the right to change it.
  53. Keep up with relationships, even if it’s a little bit awkward or hard. Don’t be afraid to show your affection.
  54. Challenges ALWAYS make you better. Always.

I must say, I’m pretty proud of it. I think these are some great things to know. And if I can learn this much in six months, I can’t wait to see what my list looks like at the end of the year. Because if I could sum all of this up into one lesson, it would be this: There is always more. More knowledge, more willpower, more beauty. Now is not all there is, and if you keep going life can only become better. What a beautiful thing.

Until next time.

Groundhog Day: Today Is Tomorrow

Bill Murray’s Groundhog Day (1993) is known as a great comedy, but it also has some incredibly wise life lessons to share. The general synopsis: Bill Murray’s character, Phil, is a jerky weatherman sent to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania with his producer Rita to cover Groundhog Day. He wakes up the next day, and it’s still February 2. He ends up reliving this day over and over and over again (the internet generally agrees it’s for about ten years), without knowing why.

At first Phil reacts with fear. Fear turns into anger, and for a while he behaves like an even bigger jerk than before. He crashes cars, steals money, and even tries to kill himself after a while without success. What must it be like to feel so incredibly trapped that you don’t even have the power to take your own life?

GroundhogDayphilritaAt some point, though, Phil decides to take advantage of his gift. He spends a great deal of time learning about Rita, going on the same date with her day in and day out, crafting the perfect actions and words so that each day he can keep her around a little bit longer. At first it’s almost admirable, and then you start to wonder whether maybe he shouldn’t be with her at all if he’s this bad at it.

One day Phil comes to the same conclusion, and he gives up. He lets go of his resentment and his anger and his scheming because he doesn’t know what else to do, and he tries the only option left: honesty. He tells Rita what’s going on and, lucky for him, she becomes interested. She ends up spending the night with him like a science experiment, to see what happens when the clock strikes six. At the end of the night, as Rita falls asleep, Phil whispers:

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Rita cannot hear him, and she won’t remember this tomorrow. Phil has no ulterior motive other than the fact that it has finally dawned on him that he is utterly and completely in love.

The next day we see a new Phil. This Phil may not have Rita as a partner, but he is a different man simply for being able to admit his feelings for her. He starts doing things like taking piano lessons (the teacher may not remember him, but his growing talent survives each day) and learning about the people of Punxsutawney, whom he had before cast aside because they were hicks. Suddenly he’s open to the world around him. Maybe this is the first time he loves himself; this is the first time that he’s worth more than the usual bitterness and sarcasm and selfishness. Caring about others and wanting to make oneself better takes vulnerability, but you get what you give.

groundhogdayloveAnd one day, after maybe years of piano lessons, acquainting himself with the needs and situations of the people around him, and ultimately coming to be at peace with himself, Phil wins the love of Rita. It’s more genuine and less painful than learning to say every perfect word: he becomes a better person, and she loves him for that. The most important part is that he’s not doing it for her, he’s doing it for himself. This story shows us that we are only truly worthy of love when we live not to receive love from others, but to give it. Phil gains so much joy and self worth from helping the people of his town, engaging in his hobbies, and basking in the company of Rita, that he doesn’t even expect anything more. Even when Rita finally- finally!- tells him that she loves him, he says, “No matter what happens tomorrow or for the rest of my life, I’m happy now. Because I love you.”

Now, here’s the part of the movie that really gets me. Phil makes himself better because he’s not busy trying to get somewhere else. What if, instead of trying to live in a better place or get a better job, we tried to better ourselves? Phil is stuck in the same tiny town with the same people and the same job every day, much like many of us. He would go completely insane if he concentrated on his location and on his job day in and day out. Phil realizes (eventually) what many Americans don’t: life isn’t about where you are, or where you’re going. It’s about who you are. Life would be much more full if we lived each day not trying to get a fancier caption under our picture, but instead working on the personality behind it.

This movie is about what happens when there’s no prospect of a future. This doesn’t literally happen often, but for many of us, there’s a comparison to our own life. We’re so focused on what’s next, but Phil teaches us that maybe we can only deserve what’s next when we learn to love what’s now.

And it turns out that the purpose of his reliving the same day, that day of possibility between winter and spring, wasn’t just to make him “a better person.” It was to help him learn to appreciate his life and to make the most of each day and the gifts it brings. Once he does, he wakes up on February 3. And he utters the words, “Today is tomorrow.”

You can’t get to your tomorrow until you make the best of your today. Maybe that means your job, or your relationships. But no matter the context, it is possible to be stuck in today forever. We’ve all had days during which we tell ourselves, “All I have to do is get through, go to sleep, and I’ll wake up and it will be tomorrow.” But what if we didn’t have tomorrow? What if all we could do was make today as great as we possibly can?

We don’t get to practice for each day hundreds of times, but we do get to do the best we can on purpose. Maybe if you make the best you can of today, whatever comes next- no matter what it is- will be beautiful.

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