20 Life Lessons (From a life half lived)

My grad school friend Lori’s Happiness List, a guest blog post a few weeks back, was so thought-provoking (not to mention, popular), I made my own list. And since my 51st birthday is looming on the horizon—again—I thought this would be a good time to reveal my list of life lessons.

Life Lesson #1: Cheaper isn’t always better.

For the longest time I was the queen of free, the princess of deeply discounted. Not anymore. Because I’ve finally learned that often, you get what you pay for: ie. super cheap can mean super low quality.

Just this week, as I was driving my little green VW about town, I thought, “I love my new car. So much!” Though I did get a good deal on it, “JJ” certainly wasn’t free or even deeply discounted. And yet, my Great Falls Green GTI brings me so much joy. I’m very glad I didn’t “Scrooge” myself out of buying a new car. For the first time since 1986.

Life Lesson #2: Take care of your health.

In this life, you only get one body. Treat it well. Eat healthy, whole food. Move. Play. Rest.

Every time I visited my mother in her senior living community, it was easy to identify who had taken good care of their health and who had not.

Life Lesson #3: Do the next right thing.

Apply this life lesson when you find yourself absolutely overwhelmed. If you have no idea what you should do in a stressful situation, make supper. Give your kids a bath. Put gas in your car.

Doing something that needs to be done is better than sitting with your head in your hands. Plus it can calm you and might even bring some perspective.

Life Lesson #4: You are stronger than you know.

When life seems really hard, resist the urge to whine: “I can’t. I. can’t.” The truth is, you can. You should. What can you do to improve your quality of life? Maybe:

  • End a toxic relationship.
  • Stop smoking.
  • Instead of complaining about your job for the 840thday in a row, start looking for a new one.
  • Stop drinking 18 cans of pop a day.
  • If you have a tendency to self-medicate with alcohol, food, drugs, television, video games, pornography, social media, and/or shopping, cut it out!
  • Start exercising. For the record, a 5-minute walk qualifies as exercise.

Life Lesson #5: Keep the Sabbath.

The word “Sabbath” comes from the Jewish verb “shabbat” which means “to rest from labor.” Clearly, you don’t have to be religious to enjoy this tradition.

Recently I noticed that if I’m left to my own devices, I will work and work and work some more. As a mother, there’s always something that needs to be done around the house. As a writer, there’s always a brainstorm to jot down,  a document to edit, a piece of writing to submit for publication or a contest.

But I’m a human BEING, not a human DOING. Which means I need downtime.

Taking a whole day’s Sabbath seemed super wasteful scary to me, so I began taking baby Sabbaths—2-4 hours—every Sunday. After church, I sprawl on the living room sofa with a book that I am reading strictly for pleasure. To my great delight, Bonnie Agnes or Boots Louise will often join me. Sometimes The Sandman will visit as well. Afterward I always rise refreshed.

Life Lesson #6 There is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.

Some people say blood is thicker than water, that family trumps all. I’ve learned that’s simply not true. Often family members will disappoint you. Sometimes they will hurt you deeply. Some will treat you worse than any stranger ever would. The stories I’ve heard!

When people tell you you have to love your mother, your father, your brother, your sister, whoever, walk away. No one gets to tell you how to feel about anything.

The fact of the matter is, often friends will treat you far better than blood-relatives do. 

Life Lesson #7: Timing is everything.

Being a mother taught me this life lesson. So did being the wife of a college football official.

If you have BIG news—bad or good—consider carefully WHEN you should deliver the information.


  • Call your spouse at work to tell them the news right before their very important meeting.
  • Text your spouse the newsflash right before they appear on television or radio, local or national.
  • Drop the news bomb in the car as you’re driving your child to Math Field Day, AP exams, or their audition for the senior play.
  • Make a super sad announcement as you drive your family to a weekend camping trip.

Nearly all news can wait 12 hours, if not 36. Especially the kind that dominates the mind. In a positive or negative way.

Life Lesson #8: Travel

If possible, at least once a year, go see the world. Or at least get out of your state.

Travel teaches you so much. That people on the other side of the ocean, if not the world, are wonderful—generous and kind. In addition, going on trips takes you out of your normal routine. All of us can benefit from a change of scenery and/or some rest-and-relaxation.

Not to mention, there are so many beautiful and interesting things to see. The giant redwoods of California. The Northern Lights. One of the five bioluminescent zones on the planet. The Grand Canyon. Victoria Falls.

To only know your own neighborhood or your own town is to limit yourself. And your imagination. And in time, your memory.

Life Lesson #9: Never say never.

So many of the things I thought would NEVER happen, have come to pass. For instance:

Once upon a time, I thought I’d never marry.

I used to think I’d never have kids.

Being a stay-at-home-mom was the last thing I wanted to be.

I was sure I’d never forgive certain people.

And then every single one of those things happened. Which is why these days, I make it a point to never say never. Because if I do, invariably God will say, “Hold my holy water.”

Life Lesson #10: Treat yourself well.

Don’t work yourself to death. Try not to stay up until midnight every night doing housework. Ask for help when you need it.

And make sure other people treat you well, too. Don’t keep loaning money to people who never pay you back. Politely say no when your boss asks you, for the 18th time this year, to miss your kid’s ball game for the sake of a work project.

Recognize when people are using you. And abusing you.

If you’re a fan of giving people second chances, be careful about giving third, fourth, and fifth chances. If this life lesson is difficult for you to apply, borrow my copy of the book Boundaries.* Or read this post.

Life Lesson #11: Don’t tell lies. And don’t believe lies. Especially about yourself.

This life lesson is related to #10. Many of us have an invisible gremlin perched on our shoulder that likes to whisper in our ear. Things like:

  • You’re ugly.
  • You’re stupid.
  • No one will ever love you.
  • You’re not enough.
  • You’re too much.

Here’s how you demolish those lies. Write each one down and figure out the reason it’s not true. If needed, ask a friend to help you. Or join a Libera group.

Life Lesson #12: Don’t rescue people who don’t need rescuing.

Years ago I read the excellent book, Co-dependent No More.* In that book, Melody Beattie recommends you never do for a person what they are able to do for themselves. When you rescue someone who doesn’t need it, in time they will resent you. And when they return to their poor behavior, unchanged, you will likely resent them.

Rescuing other people can also rob them of their independence. If your child is 23, think twice before you get involved in their affairs. If your parent is 70 and still healthy and living independently, don’t rush to assist them with every single life snag.

Life Lesson #13: Find your kind.

If your “tribe” doesn’t find you, go in search of them. Your tribe is a group of people with whom you share a common interest. The first time I went to the West Virginia Writers conference, I felt an immediate connection to its members. We all love to read and write words. We speak the same language: alliteration, metaphor, show-don’t tell.

I also love hanging out with my Libera tribe where I’m connected with other ladies who also want to find their true, authentic selves and live their best lives.

Another reason having a tribe is so important, is that the members of a tribe look out for one another. Each of your tribe members represents the answer to the question: If you needed help in the middle of the night, who would you call?

You don’t need a support person. You need a couple of them.

Lesson #14: Do not judge.

First of all, judgement is not your job. It’s God’s.

Second of all, none of us know the whole story, every single fact, about anyone’s situation. Most people are complex combinations of good and not so good, sweet and sour, smart and foolish, wounded and wound-inflicter. Don’t believe for a minute that you know the entire inner landscape of any given human. Only God truly knows the heart.

Along those lines, please note: As strongly as you hold your opinions on various subjects, others feel just as vehemently about their beliefs. This includes areas as diverse as:

The fact that you believe differently than another individual or group does not make you superior to them. It merely makes you different.

Life Lesson #15: Be kind.

To humans. To animals. As my grad school pal Lori wrote last month:

“Put out into the world what you want to receive.”

This is the Biblical principle of: “You reap what you sow.” The eastern religious concept of Karma. The saying, “What goes around comes around.”

If you want people and the universe to be kind to you, be kind to them. Random acts of kindness are a beautiful thing. Giving people—friends or strangers—sincere compliments is an easy way to encourage them.

Life Lesson #16: Go for the really good best.

Do people ever tell you, “You’d be really good at such-and-such?” It’s great to be really good at something, but is it enough?

I’ve had people tell me to be a Zumba instructor or a Pampered Chef consultant. I know I could do both of those things equally well. But would those things make the best use of my skills? Would they make me come alive? No.

I want to spend time on endeavors that make me feel alive! Like this gal:

Life Lesson #17: Forgive those who have trespassed against you.

Anne Lamott’s stance on forgiveness is superb.

For years I refused to forgive an individual who hurt me deeply. I’m pretty sure, wherever he was, he wasn’t eaten up by the memory of our situation. But I was. Until I wasn’t. One day I gave it to God saying, “Here. You take it. I don’t want it anymore.”

Afterward, I remember thinking it was like walking from your car to your house with a 2-ton grocery bag in each hand. And then someone took the bags from you and your hands practically floated up to the sky because they felt so very light.

Consider doing this for everyone you’re stewing about.

Life Lesson #18: The going gets tougher.

Chances are, the longer you live, the more life will raise the bar on what constitutes: “The hardest thing ever.” As in, “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do….”

The good news is, you’ll  no doubt survive that difficult circumstance. I did. Good golly, the things I was called to do on my mother’s behalf in her final six months:

  • Tell her a mass was identified in her colon (Wait, isn’t the doctor supposed to deliver that news?)
  • Inform her a second tumor was found in her stomach (Wait, isn’t the doctor supposed…)
  • Let her know “There’s nothing more the doctors can do for you (Wait…)
  • Call in hospice
  • Stay at her bedside while she lay dying

I’m not seeking pity here. I’m simply saying, if I can do these things, so can you. See Life Lesson #4 above.

Note: In my experience, these kinds of situations are made more bearable by faith.

Life Lesson #19: Be ever curious, always learning.

At the age of 87, Michelangelo supposedly said, “I am still learning.” I want that to be me. My father exhibited this trait, always ready and willing to learn something new, something fascinating.

I think this behavior makes you more interesting. Smarter, too. And humble. If you know there is still so much to learn, how can you be an arrogant know-it-all?

Life Lesson #20: Life is better with a positive attitude.

For the most part, you and I are incredibly blessed. Compared to much of the rest of the world, we live safe and abundant lives. If, however, you find it difficult to maintain a positive outlook, consider acknowledging your daily blessings in a journal or prayer before supper. This process can actually change your brain.

That’s all the life lessons I’ve got. For this year, anyway.


One more thing, if you have a list and it’s under 2,000 words, email me here. Perhaps your lesson list can run as a guest post.

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