The end of the year is always a good time for a little introspection and internal decluttering. This year I started with a decluttering frenzy of the little bolthole at the back of my Airbnb/home where I keep my personal belongings in cyclone proof boxes. As I held a pair of unused thermal underwear in my hands, it suddenly hit me that this is also the end of a decade!
I’d bought the thermals exactly 10 years ago for a hiking trip to Patagonia that was to start off my life-changing adult gap year. I never went to Patagonia, I never wore the thermals and I never went on my gap year. I ended up going on a totally different journey, one that taught me the hard way the most essential life lessons.
I said a little prayer of gratitude yesterday when I tossed the thermals into the charity bin. Thank goodness this decade is over. It’s been the toughest of my life!
I crossed the threshold from 40 to 50 this decade. I went through menopause. I went from freshly married to freshly widowed. I went from feeling on top of the world to watching my life fall away from under me. I went through a category 5 cyclone that destroyed my small beach-side community and scared the living daylights out of me. I crashed hard and I rose strong.
The last decade broke me open and taught me everything I needed to know about life (and death). The most important life lessons are learned the hard way. I am grateful to all of it—the grief, the hot flushes, even the cyclone— because it has jolted me awake and made me a better person.
Here are 10 essential life lessons I take away from this decade:
1. Falling apart taught me the value of doing inner work
We live in a society that values productivity and strength. I was criticised and envied by friends and family for giving myself permission to take time out to grieve and heal. I’ve learned that we can only be strong when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable, when we give ourselves the time and space to do the most important work of all: inner work.
Christmas is a good time to remember that the most important gift you can give yourself is to make time for yourself. Self-care isn’t just about scented candles and spa treatments. It’s about cultivating the most important relationship of your life: the relationship with your true self.
2. Live every moment of your life as if it were the last
Things can change from one moment to the next without warning. We’d spent a year carefully planning our adult gap year. Our bags were packed, we’d sublet the house and were about to get on a plane to Patagonia, when my husband found a pea-sized lump behind his ear. Cancer hadn’t been part of the plan.
I’d been running on autopilot for months, but suddenly I was wide awake. Every moment he was alive was precious. It’s been one of the most important life lessons. Since then I’ve tried to stay awake to life with all of its ups and downs, breath by breath, moment to moment. I am not great at it, but I keep trying. Mindfulness meditation has taught me that you are only truly alive in the present moment, because you can’t know what the next moment may hold. Things can change from one moment to the next.
3. The most important things in life aren’t things
Three weeks after my husband’s funeral, I was evacuated my home ahead of a monster cyclone. It felt as if the universe had singled me out to hammer home a series of essential life lessons, in case caring for a dying spouse hadn’t been enough.
Take what you can’t loose, leave the rest, it’s just stuff, I was told by those who’d been through it before. But I wasn’t prepared to loose anything else, I’d just suffered a major loss. I needed to hold on to as many things as I could. I spent the hours before the cyclone madly carting stuff to safety: boxes of books, the freshly washed linen, I even considered bringing the toaster to the cyclone shelter. It was totally ridiculous.
It’s 10 years since the cyclone and his death. Over those years I’ve held on to many of his things and way too many of mine. Last week I finally threw away the last of it. It really is only stuff. I’ve learned that holding on to stuff doesn’t make me happy. It burdens me. Being clutter free is liberating. It allows me to focus on what is essential. Because in the end, you can’t take any of it with you.
4. We are only a blink in the universe
Going through a natural disaster and its devastating aftermath taught me that nature is indifferent to our plight. The cycles of nature have come and gone for millennia and we are only alive for a nanosecond of it. What is important is not the stuff we accumulate and manage to cart around with us, but how we choose to spend that nano-second we have on this planet (and to care for the planet instead of destroying it).
5. Accept that impermanence is part of life.
Nature teaches us that everything changes all the time. In the Wet Tropics of Australia’s Far North, where I have my home base, cyclones have always been part of the cycle of life. Seasons come and go, plants die and grow. My garden has re-grown since the cyclone shredded it, my house has been repaired.
People come into our lives and create great joy. People leave, sometimes forever, and we experience deep sadness. Grief is part of life. You don’t get over it, you get though it. In time things grow again, wounds heal, pain goes away. Joy can return to our lives if we allow it. It’s all part of the cycle of being alive. The key is to be awake to it.
6. You can crash hard and you can rise strong
Falling apart is like a cyclone. It’s an act of impermanence. When we crash into our personal rockbottom we have a chance to transform deeply. When life falls apart we come face to face with our naked, raw and authentic selves. Digging ourselves out of the mud, we have a chance to grow and to change if we embrace our pain, acknowledge our wounds and allow ourselves to be vulnerable.
Crashing hard is an opportunity to be jolted wide awake to what is essential. Once you focus on what is essential you can build a stronger foundation for yourself and live connected to your heart and your truth. Falling apart is like stepping onto a blank page. It’s an opportunity to write a new chapter for yourself. And remember, you are more resilient than you think you are!
7. Focus on what fulfills you, don’t live life according to the expectations of others
I’d planned to use my adult gap year to reinvent myself as a freelance travel writer. After 20 years in academia, I was ready for a career change. But after witnessing death and a natural disaster, travel writing suddenly seemed trivial.
I spent several years on the slippery slope trying to put myself together again. What I learned is that our society is grief averse. Taking time out to heal was judged as a self-indulgence. To proof something, I took on jobs that didn’t suit me and that left me unfulfilled.
It was only when I started listening to my heart that I finally found what fulfilled all of me. I’d discovered the healing power of writing during my grief journey—writing is what saved me and made me feel whole again—and I’ve found a way to create a business out of my deepest passion. I’ve never felt happier about the work I do.
8. Turning 50 is liberating
The first thing you’ll notice as a woman over 50 is that you become invisible. Men no longer look at you and millennials will always believe that they are smarter than you. No matter how young-for-your-age you are. It can be infuriating and depressing.
But here’s the secret. Knowing that your time is slowly running out, frees us from the need to please others. Ageing teaches us, by hook or by crook, that there is no point in believing that you’ll ever live up to the expectations of others. As we age, we learn to pay attention to what really matters. It’s no longer about the outside, about looks and appearances, it’s about what happens on the inside of us.
9. Believe in yourself
This decade did hammer home all of the most important life lessons in one blow. The day I learned that my husband was terminally ill, I also found out that he had been unfaithful to me ever since the day we’d said ‘I do’. Finding out that he wasn’t the man I thought he was, made me doubt everything. I lost any shred of self-confidence I had left.
A friend, who is a psychotherapist, opened my eyes to the unresolved ‘why’ of his unfaithfulness. He had been a narcissist and so was my mother. I had been raised not to feel good about myself, because my mother didn’t believe in herself and neither did her own mother.
If I had a children I would make sure they’d hear it from me every day: Believe in yourself! Follow your dreams, don’t doubt yourself and don’t let anybody steal yourself confidence.
10. Final life lesson: Be compassionate to yourself and others
This was the most painful and the most effective life lesson the last decade has taught me. When I found out about my husband’s infidelity, his body was riddled with cancer. How could I be mad at him for having cheated on me? But the hurt and the anger ate away at me. So I did the only thing I could do.
I practiced compassion. I forgave him and I forgave the women he’d been with. It wasn’t courage or bravery that made me ring his lovers to let them know about the funeral. It was an act of self-preservation. It made all of us feel better. In the words of the Dalai Lama: “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”
My husband was a flawed human being, just like the rest of us. Nobody is perfect. So the next time you make a mistake, forgive yourself and practice self-compassion. It’s truly life-changing.
In the end I didn’t have to hike through Patagonia to go on a life-changing journey. It was all right there in front of me.
What’s an essential life lesson you’ve learned the hard way?
Please join me in the comments below. I’d love to hear from you!