Tuesday, December 31, 2019

My Wisdom Challenge for 2020

I decided to complete this challenge as we move into a brand new decade. Without thinking about it too hard, we must quickly brainstorm 20 personal ideas, or general pearls of wisdom. I wasn't sure I had many at all, let alone 20, but here's what I came up with. Once I started scribbling, I got on a roll. Would you like to read along and play along too? 

1) Life may not deliver our dreams, but it does deliver small, unexpected delights that catch us by surprise. Wendell Berry's main character Hannah Coulter was right when she put it this way. "I began to trust the world again, not to give me what I wanted, for I saw that it could not do that, but to give unforeseen gifts and pleasures that I'd not thought to want." In retrospect, many of the specific outcomes I've prayed for over the years haven't happened. If I was to plot prayer results on a pie graph, I suspect the short term disappointment might appear to be way more than the 50% we'd expect from head/tail probability mathematics. That discouraged me for years, but now I think a better way to operate is to trust that when we don't get what we badly wanted, it probably wasn't right for us anyway. Aesop's fox decided those delicious grapes he couldn't reach must have been sour. He gets a bad profile, but I think his attitude might contain a bit of sense too. When I remember some things I've set my heart on in the past, I think it's probably lucky I didn't get them. (Review of Hannah Coulter coming soon.)

2) A life of curiosity is an interesting and varied one. Elizabeth Gilbert is right. In Big Magic, she says, "You may end only with the satisfaction of knowing you passed your existence in devotion to the noble human virtue of inquisitiveness. That should be more than enough for anyone to say that they lived a rich and splendid life."

3) Many, if not most worries are just future projections fueled by fear without a grain of substance in them. It's best to live our lives in day tight compartments. The Israelites were instructed to collect enough manna for a single day, and those who decided to store up enough for two or three found it filled with worms and weevils. We're given enough grace to face the day we're in, and not grapple with those ahead. That's why worryworts have no rest. My imagination has gone sprinting ahead of me so often, I've lived many days under black clouds of fear, waiting for disaster to strike, when all along there was no need to. Dennis Merritt Jones' mother was right when advised him, 'Don't borrow trouble from tomorrow, son.'

4) We shouldn't get our habits mixed up with our essential nature. We can change the first, but not the second. I can stop eating dairy because I'm lactose intolerant, but I can't stop being a shy introvert because I want to be more social. After fifty years on this planet, the awkwardness, social fatigue and mind blanks are as strong a part of my psyche as ever. I've wasted a lot of time either in denial or trying to eradicate them. It doesn't work. Any time we declare personal war on intrinsic characteristics because we don't like them is wasted time! We're far better off polishing up our obvious strengths.

5) 21st century blessings like Paracetemol, Ibuprofen and sunscreen are miracles of our era, so we should use them gratefully as required. It's sometimes good to remember former generations who had to be more drastic, such as those who used laudanum for pain relief. In other words, we're happier when we don't take for granted lifestyles which would have been beyond our ancestors' wildest dreams.

6)There's no point in trying to second guess people. We are probably often wrong, and even if we're right about their nastiness, hostility or rudeness, it's better all round to give them the benefit of the doubt. Let's make up our minds that they meant nothing personal. Grudges and simmering resentment use a lot of energy that could be released elsewhere. The fellow who said, 'Keep your temper, nobody else wants it,' was right.

7) We should lower the bar for what qualifies as special. Captain Chris Hadfield was right. It's far better to enjoy hundreds of satisfying moments in our lives rather than dismiss everything except two or three awesome occasions spaced far apart. I was happy when I got married, had three babies, and won some literary awards, but when I know there's a good book for me waiting to be picked up from the library, the happiness is also present then. An expensive holiday is grand, but so is a stir-fry with a new sauce cooked by a spouse. Front row concert tickets are great, but so is listening to your favourite song on the radio as you drive to work. I'm sure you can get the picture and keep this rolling. Chris Hadfield said, "Life is a lot better when you feel you're having ten wins a day, rather than a win every ten years or so."

8) The ordinary should be embraced, including ourselves. People trying hard to be outstanding and special are pretty common. The evidence is all over social media. Fledgling businesses, new book reviews, and gorgeous, touched-up photographs greet us whenever we scroll down. Maybe Alice Average is paradoxically the really outstanding person, for accepting her humble station and just getting on with her day. The Ordinary Princess struck it lucky when a wise fairy gave her the gift of being nothing out of the box. Her parents were aghast, but she grew up with a level of contentment her ambitious, brilliant, highly admired sisters lacked. And that was probably worth more than gold.

9) Books are great. Socrates was right. Reading helps us take on board easily and thankfully a lesson some other person has learned through hard experience. Matt Haig was right too. When we're feeling depressed, let's turn to books, and replace our doleful mindsets with the words of someone in a more cheerful head space at the time of writing. It just might help us recover quicker.

10) Hearing somebody get highly praised isn't intended as a reproach of you. That's a hangover from my try-hard childhood and youth. We really have nothing to prove, and it's pointless trying to show or impress others anyway. Their minds tend to be set like cement and opinions hard to change.

11) There is more supernatural support under-girding our limited view of the world than we might ever think or believe possible. In recent years, I've felt increasingly that what is invisible to our natural five senses is surely even stronger than what we can see, hear, touch, taste and smell. I wrote a discussion paper for Uni earlier this year, and explained it like this. "The Bible informs us that God, from a spiritual plane invisible to our natural senses, formed our physical world with his spoken word. Those of us with a sound concept of Shalom or peace in our own lives may rest confident that the vast, unseen realm is more powerful than the everyday world we detect with our natural senses. It's easy to assume it's the other way around, since we rely on our natural senses to inform us what's 'real' and solid. Therefore, to really embrace the concept of Shalom, we may make a decision that once we've prayed to our loving God, we are safe to rely on the soundness of whatever plays out."

 I was delighted to read the words of Father Latour from Death Comes for the Archbishop. He explains to his best friend, Father Vaillant, why he doesn't bother to go chasing miracles. 'Where there is great love there is always miracles. One might almost say that an apparition is human vision corrected by divine love. The Miracle of the Church seems to me to rest not so much upon faces or voices of healing power coming suddenly near to us from afar off, but upon our perceptions being made finer, so that for a moment our eyes can see and our ears can hear what is there about us always.'

12) Yet at the same time, all that we have for our five senses certainly isn't paltry. The character of Dad in The Solitaire Mystery is spot on. I'll quote him directly. "People would have gone absolutely wild if astronomers had discovered another living planet. They just don't let themselves be amazed by their own. All this bursts through each spring. Tomatoes and lemons, artichokes and walnuts, tons of greenery. How do you think this black earth pumps it all out? When people are interested in the supernatural, they suffer from a remarkable blindness. They don't see the most mysterious thing of all, that the world exists. Our lives are part of a unique adventure. Nevertheless, most of us think the world is 'normal' and are constantly hunting for something 'abnormal' like angels or martians. But this is because we don't realise the world is a mystery. I don't need to visit cold castles to go on a ghost hunt. I am a ghost myself." Bravo! Let's not be counted among those who are only impressed by angels, martians or ghosts.

13) It's fine to be open-minded but not double-minded. If we're always prepared to change our minds about the big, important things, we're never at rest. Statements such as, 'It's a purposeful universe,' or 'God cares for us,' should be unequivocal when we decide to believe them. In my wonky moments, I've felt the need for constant reassurance about the same old issues. I can understand why people get exasperated with me, since I do the same when people agree with my comforting thoughts one moment, then change their minds and race around panicking again the next. If a sound concept brings conviction and peace one day, don't drop it the next, out of fear it isn't true after all. James the Apostle was right. People like this are like tossing waves.

14) Hold lightly to both censure and praise. My first semester back at full time study was full of assignments ranging between 72% and 94%, yet I tried equally hard all round. I have to believe the differences may be a reflection of the marker as much as myself. The great philosophers who say it's wise to let it all go are right. Positive feedback feels really great though, so I suggest we enjoy the initial surge of elation, but then don't cling to it. In the same way, when something disappointing lets us down, we can recover quicker when we remember that it's temporary, and not the end of our story.

15) Time really does hurtle us through space at breakneck speed. It's an illusion whenever it feels sloth-like and meandering. If we realised how fast the years slip past on the abacus of our lives, we'd be breathless. So let's not waste them in depression but have our remedies in place to help us through through those undesirable moments. Mine are books, walks and pottering about. The Graveyard Poets were right when they said to accept our mortality and enjoy life while we can.

16) Perhaps your mind operates at a slower speed than others. Villette's Lucy Snowe was right when she decided she couldn't work on demand, because she freezes under the pressure of exams or any surveillance. When spontaneity really isn't your thing, you can't fabricate it. I rarely ask questions in class situations. It's partly because I'm shy, but also because my introvert, pondering mind doesn't process things on the spot as quickly as my classmates' do. I need to take time to review all the facts and notes in my own time later, before I have anything tangible to ask or offer. That's just me, and I have to accept it.

17) Don't rely on Angel Thoughts. This is an interesting concept I'm just beginning to put into practice now, with the help of an anxiety counselor who told me about the terminology. 'Angel thoughts' are those knee jerk reactions to the 'devil thoughts' which suddenly send our peace of mind flying! We scurry to piece together desperate evidence that our worst fears aren't true. This can involve seeking reassurance from friends or the internet. Sometimes angel thoughts take the form of affirmations we recite between clenched teeth. "I'm not sick at all. I'm the picture of health. I'm not a waste of space. I'm a perfect expression of love and creativity." The problem is, we can never pep talk ourselves out of severe depression or anxiety. Those reassuring angel thoughts never seem to loom as huge as the devil thoughts we're trying to shoot down.

Instead of relying on ineffective angel thoughts to shield me, which never works, I'm now simply waiting those devil thoughts out. Angel thoughts mean well, but they're really just compounding the problem. When we sit with devil thoughts for long enough, with a "Yeah, whatever," sort of attitude, they are more likely to subside of their own accord, until next time. And their severity lessens over time with longer periods between them. I'm already finding it seems to be a sound approach with those dreaded hang-ups which have seemed to hang on through the decades. 

18) Thinking about what we read is a real stand against the age of shallow skimming in which we find ourselves. So if you've borne with me thus far, congratulations. Reading anything from long articles to brick sized classics is a good, rebellious stand against all those modern voices that seem to clamour at us to hurry up. It helps us to deepen our focus, attention and the quality of our reflections. I'm sure it spills over to the physical aspects of our lives too, and steady our nerves and blood pressure.

19) It isn't our job to impress others. Really? I always thought it was, from the time I was a little kid. At home I was the baby sister, and at school I was the butt of mean bullies. I thought that meant I had to prove to all of them, and ultimately myself that I wasn't only worthy of taking up space, but also capable of some good, impressive input in the world. It was a waste of time, because each achievement turned out not be the end. I had to keep raising the bar higher, and keep a furtive eye on what my peers were doing. And do you know what? I was running myself ragged, and people don't really even pay much attention anyway. We need to chill out and live life out of enthusiasm for what we're doing. Not a relentless need for positive feedback before we can allow ourselves to relax. Plus, Sir Thomas Browne, one of the Graveyard Poets, wrote, "The duty of an honest Christian is to make an impression not in the record of man but rather in the register of God." To me, that's a tip to get my white-knuckled grip off imression management, social media stats and all those things which can tie us in knots.

20) Maybe John, Paul, George and Ringo were right. All we need is love. It's easy to take short pithy maxims as cheesy nonsense, and this lyric of the Beatles is no exception. But the most profound truths are often the very simplest to wrap our heads around. We're told that God is love, which makes sense since love sparks our impetus for the most meaningful relationships and activities in our lives. It's presence in whatever we do is possibly a sure sign that we're on the right track.

Whew, that was actually quite challenging and fun to do. Now I'd like to hear some of yours. If you'd like to commit to coming up with 20, please let me know. Even if only a couple spring to mind, please feel free to add them in the comments, and make them an extension of this list. I'd love to read them. 


  1. Great post Paula. Can I add one.
    Never let your hope become deferred, it makes your heart grow sick.
    Yes life has a habit of not confirming to our wants, goals and expectations in our time frame. However I have resolved to always hold on to hope. There is always something to be thankful for. And when we live for God there is always hope. I have wasted a lot of time with a sick heart. Unnecessarily as God draws near to the broken hearted. That thought always restores hope

    1. Thanks Jo, what a great addition ❤ The sort of heart sickness you mention can make every day feel like a heavy load. And you're the ideal example of somebody speaking up to help others avoid unnecessary pain. May you be richly blessed in the coming twenties.

  2. This is a very interesting meme. I see that you really thought about your points. If I gave this a try I think that I might get into some controversial territory :)

    1. Hi Brian, could be a can of worms, this sort of exercise, that's for sure. Especially in our times.

  3. Some great insights there, Paula. One that probably overlaps with yours is 'Don't live your life according to other people's expectations'. That way supposed to be my motto for 2019, but I didn't always get there. Maybe 2020 :)

    1. Hi Nola, that's such a tricky one to stick to! I can understand why we might get derailed trying to live it out, and bet you have some stories to tell 😉 But 2020 is a brand new year.

  4. Oh, what a beautiful note to start the year on! Thank you Paula, many beautiful and insightful pearls here ❤️ On worrying, one thing my husband reminds me of (constantly) is that "worrying is trying to control the future with thought", and that's something I try to remember when I find myself fretting. I also LOVE the "angel thoughts" concept, thank you so much for sharing that - I'll definitely be putting that into practice this year. x

    1. Hi Sheree, I love that gem of your husband's too. Why do we do this to ourselves? Sometimes the small reminders are spot on. They are all good thoughts to begin 2020 :)