This weekend I attended my 20-year college reunion, not because of any particular loyalty to my alma mater, but because of the opportunity it provided to spend time with a couple of good friends who I don’t see very often, to reminisce about who I was, and to think about who I am and will become.
With the extra, undistracted time afforded by 4+ hours of flying, I also enjoyed the luxury of considering this milestone and other recent significant life events.
- The year before last I celebrated my 40th birthday in Thailand accompanied by an international group of travelers. This trip provided me the opportunity to see the land of my father through the eyes of an adult and to meet cousins, aunts and uncles who have lived on the other side of the world and who hold the bond of family without the familiarity earned by close proximity.
- That same year, I spent much time, mental focus and emotional energy working to transform my lifestyle and body into a healthier expression of the person I already was. Because the changes were very visible, people have proclaimed these changes to be extremely remarkable. In many respects, however, this change was just a continuation of an ongoing journey of embracing myself and discarding others’ expectations or labels.
- In the last 14 months, I became obsessed with the practice of running, which was a very funny evolution if you knew me for the rest of my 40-ish years on this planet.
- And today I will celebrate 12 years of marriage to my good friend and soul mate, who enriches the daily, mundane yet precious days of my life.
These events provided a reminder of experiences lived and lessons learned. They marked the passage of time and provided distinct moments in the midst of normal life. And this weekend gave me the time to thoughtfully consider how they fit into my personal fabric.
As I spent time with two friends who had known me over many years, though multiple life phases – those awkward high-school years, college youth, young single life, professional pursuits, adulthood and responsibility – we wandered through topics related to the various changes we’d all experienced. And reconnecting with acquaintances and a favorite professor provided contrasts of life two decades ago versus today.
When I thought about the person I was 20 years ago, it was hard to believe that I thought myself an “adult” back then. I had a bit of head knowledge about the world around me and had expectations spoken and unspoken. I also had NO IDEA who I was, what energized me or what I would do with the resources that life and relationships had given me. Some people at that stage in their lives, in their late teens and early 20s, had a clear focus and drive to conquer the goals in front of them and the world around them. I probably even thought that about myself back then. And many accomplished people with singular focus demonstrated the ability to really flourish during that time in their lives.
Some of us, however, were a little more average, like me. We had an idea that we were supposed to go “out there” and do “something.” We may have even selected a vocation or path based on those glimmers. But the joys and challenges of life had not yet hit us, and much of those dreams were untested.
Many of us secretly hoped that life would go exactly as planned. That our “good karma” would earn us a smooth, maybe even moderately successful life. We prayed that our expectations for “normal” living would proceed like a dog-eared novel with familiar characters and settings. Perhaps this plan was similar to our childhood experiences; perhaps it was an aspiration for something different.
Then the devastating richness of life’s milestones started to come our way.
- That fist “real” job and “real” promotion – with the rewards, challenges and demands involved
- Car purchases, home purchases, relationships gained and lost, newfound responsibilities, familial and financial struggles
- Joyful experiences and unexpected, caution-inducing turns
- Newly discovered strengths and weaknesses
And sometimes, the work and effort invested, and those everyday life actions resulted in greater than hoped for results or experiences.
As I prepared for this weekend’s travels and reunion, I mentioned my plans to go to Tulsa and found out from a Twitter running friend that there was a local race on Saturday morning. Wouldn’t it be fun, I thought? So I casually signed up for the race. As part of my running obsession, I had set some pretty aggressive goals for a half marathon this April. The timing was good for a 5K and my coach suggested that I set a similarly aggressive time goal for this race, too. I wasn’t sure how I would do and it worried me. I hadn’t planned for this, nor did I have any experience racing this distance (I’ve done mostly half marathons this past year). But he was convinced that my training was strong and that I would be able to run this at least 2 minutes faster than I had ever done before.
On the morning of the event, I followed my mental plan and normal pre-race activities, with a few tweaks. I chatted with the local runners and focused on being positive and pushing my limits. Right at the start, I realized I was surrounded by a pretty fast set of runners. I jumped into a pace faster than planned and tried to ease up a bit. Each time I looked at my pace, though, I still hadn’t slowed down into my “planned” pace. Still, I was feeling OK and figured, why not push it as hard as possible and see where it goes? Just before mile 3, I felt like I was pushing hard but wanted to see if I could push it more, and pressed on. Getting to the finish line, I realized that I was going to be 4 minutes faster than my best 5K time. I said out loud, “no way!” and ran across the finish line with great satisfaction.
Many times, on my long runs, I found that too much focus on the past or upcoming miles caused me to lose the sense of rhythm and connectedness to the run in progress. Yet, conversely, recollecting the overall experiences and lessons from these runs afterward provided a stronger, almost innate ability to know and understand what I could do when needed, and, of course, provided the important foundation of skills necessary to my running goals.
Similarly, when I considered who and what I had lost and gained these past 20 years, I saw places where I could have made better decisions, loved more, rested more, and embraced the people around me better. However, I also learned that those missteps, heart-wrenching losses, and foolish decisions contributed to my personal makeup and made me a stronger, healthier, more satisfied person.
In my life, the milestones that challenged me most expanded my self-view, developed new capabilities, built extraordinary strength and exposed core weaknesses. They also built a base of life training that taught me to become stronger and embrace the changes that filled me with new questions about beliefs and purpose.
Life was more than just a collection of decisions and consequences. It fed a well that provided unexpected victories in the midst of challenges, and led to surprising fulfillment, in unforeseen places.
Enjoying the experience of the life journey today, wherever I am, helps develop that connectedness and satisfying rhythm. And, at certain life milestones, it’s good to consider, contemplate and remember that progression, and consider what I can do today and what the future could bring.