Life truly is a journey. The experiences we have as we travel through our days are what give our lives richness, meaning and purpose.
We are all familiar with society’s conventional ‘markers’ of success and accomplishment – things like reaching the legal age to vote, getting your driver’s license and first car, graduating, getting married, becoming a parent, buying your first home, and retiring…
But society has changed; fewer people are choosing marriage, parenthood or a formal education. Many will never be able to afford to buy their own home, and retirement is no longer the guaranteed cushion it once was. How do we measure our success and progress without these once standard markers?
And what about all those moments that reveal our values, such as humility and acceptance, or that show us our greatness? They may be less spectacular or outwardly notable to others, but these markers often play a more significant role in defining our life values, our sense of self, and our place in the world.
Let’s take a look at some of these important milestones in life, and the rich life lessons they have to teach us:
Opening your very first paycheck from your first real job is incredibly exciting. Even if the amount is paltry by anyone else’s standards, and even though it’s likely to be the smallest you’ll ever open, it’s yours.
You worked for it, earned it, and get to cash and spend it however you like. No other paycheck, no matter how large, will fill you with such pride and accomplishment.
Of course, once the initial excitement wears off, most of us are faced with the dawning realization of just how much everything costs.
But earning our own money can hopefully teach us responsibility, budgeting, and debt management. Earning and spending our own money can also show us a great deal about what we value in life.
For most, leaving home is a bittersweet occasion. We feel excited to be free of the rules, restrictions and limitations of our parents’ ways, and to finally be striking out on our own. But we are likely also more than a little frightened and unsure of our ability to survive without the comfort and security that comes with being a child under those parental ‘wings’.
When the reality of leaving home sets in, we have the opportunity to learn the valuable lessons of hard work (laundry, dishes, cooking), money management (I have to pay for heat?), and appreciation for our parents and family.
The many forms of love we are fortunate to experience throughout our lives will hopefully deepen and grow as we do, but there is nothing quite like the intense and absolute euphoria that first love brings.
We learn what it means to appreciate and focus on someone other than ourselves; and if we’re lucky, we get to experience how it feels to have someone appreciate and love us in return.
Of course, falling in love also opens us to the possibility of heartbreak, and the first time we experience it can be quite a painful and sobering shock.
But as with every life experience, there are gifts to be had in a broken heart – realizing you can and will overcome difficulties, and that time truly does heal all wounds.
This is a big one, though often it comes in incremental revelations rather than a lightning bolt of sudden understanding.
It comes in those moments when we realize we have dreams, interests and passions that are different from what is expected of us by our parents and society; or when we become aware of a value or belief that doesn’t match those of our peers, and that we didn’t know existed within us; or when we realize suddenly that we care less about what we look like or what clothes we are wearing, and more about who we are and how we feel.
If we’re lucky, we’ll come to this burgeoning self-awareness in our twenties. But for some, it comes later in life as a result of a painful event (divorce, losing a job, illness or injury), as a sudden realization that they are not living the life they want, or as an urge to reinvent themselves in some significant way (mid-life crisis).
Self-awareness is a never-ending unfolding of truth as it relates to our experience in life. We could all stand to increase it in key areas.
It’s quite a shock to realize that those people whose sole purpose you believed to be taking care of you, suddenly reveal themselves to be actual, whole individuals with hopes, dreams and fears of their own.
For some, it can be quite disconcerting or even disappointing to see their parents in this new light; we have a tendency to put our parents on a pedestal, and view them as perfect or even godlike. When we become adults ourselves, and we see our parents making mistakes, failing or experiencing illness, it can shake our very foundation, and make us feel suddenly vulnerable and far too ‘grown up’.
Equally valuably, we may abruptly realize that our parents were not simply put on this earth to care for and cater to us, and that they have their own very complex and private lives that don’t involve us at all. This can teach us appreciation for all that they have done for us, and remind us to do for them in return.
Everyone’s got to go through this one for the first time. And it can be extremely unpleasant for those raised to believe they are only destined for happiness and success.
When we experience the sting of disappointment as adults, the experience often comes with a degree of lost innocence or naivety. We may have been led to believe that life would be easy, or that by simply being good people we would only experience good things.
And life is mostly easy and good. But not everything is going to turn out how we hoped or planned, and sometimes bad things happen to very good people.
When we first learn this through some significant disappointment – not getting that job we wanted, or not making the team, or not catching the eye of the person we adore – it can feel as though the whole world is suddenly against us, and that nothing can be counted on.
Experiencing disappointment is life’s way of teaching us to go with the flow and roll with the punches instead of expecting perfection or trying to control everything and everyone around us. It also teaches us that we are are more than the sum of our accomplishments.
Our first experience with an entirely different culture from our own often comes as a result of traveling outside our home country.
But it can also come about as a result of moving to a big city from a small town (or vice versa), or spending time with a family of a different ethnic or religious background from ours, or even going to a different part of our own city that perhaps we never knew existed.
However we first experience a way of life that is significantly different from our own, we are forever changed by it if we remain open to it. We gain perspective and appreciation for our own culture and environment, develop understanding, tolerance and compassion for those different from ourselves, and become inspired by new possibilities for how to live our lives.
When we face a lifelong fear – skydiving, traveling alone, singing on stage, or speaking in public for example – we gain invaluable personal power and strength of character in the form of courage, will, confidence, and self-respect.
People who have overcome significant trauma or illness, and who have been able to turn it into a positive life lesson, also report these same gains.
And it needn’t be something huge to reap these rewards; even doing one small thing each day that pushes us outside of our comfort zone will net huge benefits in the short and long-term.
This is something we must all face at one time or another in our lives, and the first time is always particularly challenging and life-altering.
Whether it’s the loss of a beloved goldfish in early childhood, or the deeper grief of losing a spouse, parent, child or family pet in our adult years, our first brush with death on this level can be extremely traumatic as we grapple with larger questions of our own mortality, the impermanence of life, and accepting the unknown.
Experiencing a critical or momentous failure is a life-changer for almost everyone.
Getting fired from a job we loved, the unwanted ending of a marriage or long-term relationship, not getting into that prestigious university program, or failing to make the cut in our chosen field of the arts, sports or entertainment can be devastating.
When we are forced to accept an outcome we did not want or choose in spite of our best efforts, it can feel as though we ourselves are not good enough.
But if we are courageous enough to accept and embrace our imperfections, and if we are willing to change course and adapt, we will be graced with resilience, strength and humility.
Perhaps the biggest key to learning from failure is the critical distinction that failure is a matter of personal interpretation. Once you learn to frame your failures properly, you know how to overcome them.
This is going to be different for everyone, but it’s potential impact on our lives is the same for all who face this heavy milestone.
Our personal low point could be as seemingly benign as dealing with any of the failures mentioned above, or it could be as low as anyone could possibly go, including signs of misanthropy or general hatred of humanity.
It could be brought on through struggles with addiction, money troubles, loneliness and isolation, mental health issues, or illness and injury. It doesn’t discriminate: anyone from the loftiest, most beloved and popular to the lowliest and marginalized can experience being in this place of despair and hopelessness.
Hitting rock bottom can and does often prove to be a pivotal turning point in a person’s life, as they learn what is really important in life, and what they are truly capable of.
Humility, compassion for ourselves and others, perspective, strength, resilience, and a strong sense of purpose are just some of the many gifts they may choose to receive on their way back up.
When we are younger, by design we are focused on ourselves – on our own happiness, gains and security.
But as we mature, we begin to see the world through others’ eyes. We develop compassion. We fall in love. We feel joy and excitement for our loved ones’ accomplishments and happiness.
When we realize that we are doing something entirely for the benefit of another, we are be truly selfless and loving.
Volunteering, giving the gift of our time, attention or energy to another, helping make someone else’s dreams come true, or saving someone’s life are all examples of how we may express this more advanced type of love and compassion. In acting selflessly, we reap the immediate rewards of good feelings, and an increase in our own happiness.
The overarching and profound life lesson for this important milestone in life is a realization that we are all connected to one another, and that we are not alone after all.
Featured photo credit: Søren Astrup Jørgensen via unsplash.com