“Five things you learned, when you became a man.” It was a question posed by the project, and I had to think hard. Not because I couldn’t come up with five things, more that I had to choose from several dozen. That honing of ideas is useful sometimes. You get to the core of your own beliefs and the chaff is just that. After the deliberations came the exploration as to why are these five lessons are so important, not just to me, but to wider society. I hope that I’ve answered that, but it may only be my subjective notion and others might see a different perspective. I ascribe no particular order to this list.
1. Walk, don’t run
Back in school days, I had an eccentric old teacher who taught maths and French, the latter with little sympathy for the language. He was a decent sort, though, and my abiding memory is of him yelling down the corridor, “More haste, less speed, Guy.” As a ten-year-old kid, I never really got it, but with hindsight, I can see his point now. Whether it be outdoor exercise, work or in life’s struggles, haste is preferable to speed. If you’re out in the fresh air and only concerned with beating that personal best, you’re unlikely to see the beauty of nature around you. You’ll miss the creep of Autumn hues as they slide from green to gold, you won’t see the buds of spring or the clouds as they swell and churn in the heavens, and you’ll surely miss the cherry blossom falling as snow on a soft May day. In work, you’ll rush around, stressed and tired, never delegating, never taking the time to know your co-workers or look at the bigger picture. You’ll be the employee of the month for sure, but you’ll also be that a**hole, on the way to your first coronary. And in life? Take your time, enjoy the moment. Hold your lover by the hand; go outside and stare at the stars. Take the time to realize we’re hurtling around the vast universe on a tiny rock, and whatever your worries, they’re pretty minor in the grand scheme of things.
2. Wealth comes in many varieties
“The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil,” so the Bible informs us. I’m on the same page, even though I’m not naïve enough to believe we can do without money. As I’ve grown older, I’ve earned more every year, and yet, as seems to be the way, the more that lands in my bank account, the faster it leaves. I’m lucky to have a decent standard of living, but to be really honest, the wealth in my life has nothing to do with financial affluence. The things I value most are not objects or investments; they are they far more ephemeral. The love of my partner and my kids; a Sunday afternoon on a beach, walking the dogs; a shared joke over the breakfast table; a quiet word, spoken in the night. Too many people on this planet suffer the degradations of poverty, war and disease, and I cannot ignore this truth. I give what I can to a handful of charities, but I wish I could do more. I wish I could give even a tiny proportion of the wealth of love that surrounds me. I wish we all could give a little of that wealth, for it is a currency that knows no exchange rates, no borders, creeds or skin color. I’m trying, I hope we all are.
3. What’s for you, won’t miss you
My grandmother was a wise woman and this was her favorite saying. Once again, it took me half my life to really appreciate it. It may sound quite fatalistic if you take a darker perspective, but to me, it is a great lesson to live by. Whether it’s that gorgeous red-head, that fabulous new job, that incredible opportunity… if it happens it was meant to be, and if it doesn’t, there’s no need to feel angry at the world. It simply wasn’t your moment. There will be other times, there will be other opportunities, and when they come along, seize them with both hands and enjoy the ride. “What’s for you, won’t miss you, so don’t try to second-guess the universe, you’ll only end up unhappy and disillusioned.” As a an added extra to this, she also used to tell me that, “There’s nowt so queer as folk.” meaning people are strange, and you’ll never really know another person. And that’s OK, it’s part of life and part of the wonder of living. Get on with it, fill your three score years and ten with what will be, not what wasn’t.
4. Read the manual, when available, and if not, ask
My wife gets hours of entertainment from my obsessive need to read manuals before operating any type of gadget that comes into the house. I am that man, cover to cover, in fifteen languages, just to be sure I haven’t missed anything. In my younger days, I nearly destroyed an expensive air compressor because I didn’t read the manual and add oil to the sump before operating. Lesson learnt, and from then on, I made sure the instructions were digested before I switched anything on. It was the same with the arrival of my kids. I read the books, though to be honest, every child is unique and sometimes the books don’t cover the screaming of an unreasonable toddler. Even now, if I’m trying anything new, I’ll check the internet, YouTube or the library before I start…but here’s the thing, some situations don’t have manuals, sometimes, you’re stuck with nothing more than a gut feeling and previous experience. In these instances, don’t be too proud to ask. Whether it’s how to fix an uncooperative MIG welder, or how to mend a relationship, it’s OK to be a little humble and admit you haven’t a clue. So be a real man, and stop trying to be Mr. Know-It-All. The welder will appreciate it and so will your boss/co-worker/friend/partner/kids.
5. Be humble, be kind, love hard
I have to thank the singer, Lori McKenna for putting this one into my mind. Her song “Humble and Kind” has stuck in my head since I first heard it. As a way of getting on with life, you can’t beat it. Kindness, politeness and humility are what makes us good people. They’re undervalued, but holding a door for another, saying thank you and meaning it, and not being too proud to admit you f**ked up, these things make us good men and better human beings. And it’s not just kindness to others, it’s kindness to ourselves, too. That’s watching what we eat, making sure we get some fresh air and exercise, seeing the doctor when we have a concern (sooner rather than too late), minding our mental state as much as our physical health, wearing sunscreen, moisturizing daily. These are not selfish choices, they are simple things we can do and little changes we can make, to keep ourselves well. And when we’re well, we can care for the others in our lives, our friends, children, partners and those who are less fortunate than ourselves. If we’re healthy, we can love hard and really make a difference in the world.
So, there are my five lessons from fifty years of stumbling around, making mistakes and trying to learn from them. As a final thought, I’ll offer one more of Grandma’s wise aphorisms. “When you meet someone new, always look at their hands. Hands can tell you a great deal about a person.” She was right there, too.
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