"Don’t plan for the future. Instead, make good decisions every day"
After college graduation and a couple months of traveling around India, I found myself in a state of existential paralysis: what did my future hold, and how did I get there? Was I an anthropologist without a home, a waitress without a future, a GRE teacher stuck in a Groundhogs Day-esque fate, teaching the same problems every three months to a new group for eternity? My life was muddled, and I wasn’t sure how to get myself into a respectable profession.
What was I supposed to become?
In this future-minded state, my momentum halted. The future seemed unimaginable, and whatever steps I needed to take to get there were invisible to me. Every decision I made was fraught with the weight of the future, and I was anguished to the point of nausea.
In one phone conversation with my mom, she dropped the advice above.
That was the most consequential advice I’ve ever received. After a moment of thinking “I’m really allowed to do that?!”, I felt the pressure release. The daily decisions were no longer so weighty, and I found myself opening up to whatever opportunities appeared before me. Soon, I found myself writing an article for an editor I met at a party in Durham. The article led to an internship, the internship lead to steady writing jobs and ultimately to my career as a journalist. I was able to appreciate my part-time job teaching GRE classes for what they were, too -- a chance to have a laugh with my students, to stay sharp with all the practice problems, to put food on the table.
I found a lot to unpack in that advice, and I think about it still. There is the Zen-like belief that only the present really exists. There is the grounding truth that we have no control over future outcomes, we only have control over our actions. The advice forces you to trust your intuition, and to trust that you will know how to make a good decision when you are faced with one. The more good decisions you make, the better you get at making good decisions, so it gets easier and easier to implement as life goes on.
"You don’t have to live like that"
This phrase was a constant refrain in my home, and is applicable to all sorts of situations: bad colds, broken shoes, broken relationships. The advice encouraged me to be solutions oriented, and to take note of all available options before sinking into a panic.
Bad cough? Don’t just suffer, take some medicine and/or visit a doctor. Can’t get a job? Change your approach, and maybe your resume. Drafty bedroom? Plug up the drafts, and maybe buy a new comforter. Unhappy in your relationship? Life is too short, find a way to deal with the practical details of leaving and look at your options-- there are always options.
This may be Shilpi-specific advice--I often find myself in a state of inertia when in a bad situation, and can descend into a pitiful panic. But remembering this phrase keeps me optimistic and in problem-solving mode.
"We’re not your family anymore. Matt is your family now"
After a trip to visit my parents with my new husband, this is something my mother whispered in my ear before we got on the plane to fly back to DC. I found it darkly hilarious, but I understand the sentiment. My nuclear family did flip, and I went from being primarily a daughter to being a wife. My priority became focusing on the happiness of my new family, rather than that of my family of origin. With that statement, my mother was liberating me to do that without guilt.
"Love your baby so that he can love other people"
In addition to the countless pieces of practical advice I received once I had my son, my mother gave me this thought to ponder, and it has guided my interactions with him. Not that it’s hard to love your child... it comes naturally. But thinking about this advice makes it easier to be loving even when I’m feeling tired or frustrated. (Easier, but not always easy.)
Now that he is two and has relationships with other people, I can see how it is true. In order for him to give love to his friends, our neighbors, his grandparents and the other people in his life, his ‘love tank’ has to be full, and as his primary caregiver, the filling often falls on me. I notice that if I’m patient with him, he is more patient with other people. If I’m giving with him, he is giving with his friends.
It also relates to another piece of parenting advice, which is that children learn through example. Modeling behavior, as a good citizen and kind person, generally works better than berating a child into saying “thank you” or sharing a toy. Many of my parent friends have also noticed that having a child around encouraged them into more consciously pro-social behaviors. And psychologists who study attachment theory say the same thing: your primary attachment as an infant forms the basis for all the relationships that come afterwards.
Of course, this is with the caveat that there is so much mystery behind where personality comes from. Are our personalities written in the stars, or shaped by forces that no one has control over? Are being patient or giving or sneaky or independent all preordained traits? And parents are flawed, and the world is flawed, and we can’t guarantee that our children will have healthy relationships just by loving them.
Maybe this advice acts on the edges of all those other forces. Or maybe it’s the best we can do in an uncertain world.
"When you are born, you are crying and everyone around you is laughing. When you die, you are laughing and everyone around you is crying."
When my mother was visiting DC, I happened to strike up a conversation with a man with terminal cancer who was also staying at her hotel. He was a music teacher who delighted Hugo with his bright expressions and songs. He opened up to us about his situation, explaining that he’d always wanted to visit DC and now was his chance. Though he was hairless from chemo, at that moment he was radiant and so alive. He was so open to his experience, open to us, and open to whatever the world was offering him. We sat on the rooftop talking, and he stared out at the city with a sense of wonder and optimism for his trip.
His husband, by contrast, looked like he was suffering much more. He barely had the energy to smile at us when introduced, and didn’t participate in the conversation or lift his eyes from his coffee cup. Instead, he was deep inside of himself, and a darkness seemed to fill his thoughts. Surely he was already grieving his loss.
Later, I was recalling this all to my mom. She told me the statement above, which she said her father had told to her.
I’m not sure this counts as “advice,” but it is something I often think about, and that has changed the way I perceive mortality. Death is a liberation for those experiencing it, but for everyone who needs that person, it is a tragedy.