“Remember who you are!” As a teen, my dad would almost always call out these words of wisdom to me as I headed out the door. No doubt he hoped that I would remember my values as I made choices throughout the day. The problem was, I hadn’t made any decisions on who I was or what I wanted in life. The values my dad spoke of were his values (and the church’s values). They were handed to me prepackaged and I was expected to agree and do my best to obey. But the rebellious soul I am, I simply saw those expectations as rules, rules that I needed to break, one at a time. Snap snap snap.
I went off to college and broke all the endless rules at Brigham Young University until I got caught and kicked out of school. I transferred colleges, graduated and entered the workforce. All of a sudden, the only solid rules I had were my employers’ and they were paying me to go along/get along. It was in my own best interest to assimilate into the adult world and I did, climbing the corporate ladder quickly and successfully. I also started living the expectations of an adult—getting married, becoming a mom, buying a house, paying credit cards, and acquiring. Acquiring all kinds of stuff—dogs, more shoes than I can count, furniture, artwork, a vacation house, an extra car… buy, buy, buy and then take care of all the stuff I bought and work harder than ever to make enough money to pay for all that stuff.
If someone had asked me back then what my life priorities were, I would have rambled off the typical “being a great mom, a great employee, loving my family, and taking care of my health.” Truth was I had no idea really what my life’s goals were. I had never written them down, or seriously challenged myself to think hard, come up with great answers, and then ensure that my life was matching those priorities. I made sure I had a 401k for retirement and hoped that my home would be paid off by age 67 the age of social security, and managed my vacation days carefully each year. It was truly a purposeless life.
And then I got cancer. Talk about a game-changer.
Fast forward three years later. It was Spring Break and we were on a cruise. I was sitting out at the pool, reading a magazine, and all of a sudden I had an epiphany. I took out a pen and wrote on the back of my magazine the things that really mattered in my life beyond children, family, and health. Here they are:
1. Be an interesting person. In addition to being as kind and thoughtful as I know how to be (that’s a given), I want to learn, grow and experience and share my stories with others. I want to continue adding to my depth as a person. The world is fascinating and I want to uncover it as much as possible. If I can’t experience it, I’ll learn from others or read it from a book.
2. Stay surrounded by interesting, amazing people. Boring doesn’t work for me. It doesn’t necessarily mean my closest friends need to be educated or wealthy or the best at anything, just interesting. A positive, fascinating, valuable addition to my world. I long stopped keeping people around simply because I didn’t know how to walk away. Life is too short to spend it surrounded by people who are evil, annoying, or simply not awesome.
3. Make the world a little better. If I hit the lottery, I would travel the globe visiting one orphanage after the next in developing countries. I would donate shoes, clothes and medicines and hold children that need affection and comfort. But I can’t afford to do that and I am still required to visit doctor’s offices twice per week. But I can make a difference in the divorced world, the abuse survivors’ world, and the cancer world. I can write articles and be an advocate, raise funds to find a cure for myeloma (my cancer), visit with other cancer fighters, and lend a listening ear. I can be a great friend. I can love my children endlessly and be the best mom I can. I can love and support my parents. I can be a great partner to my fiancé. I can try to leave the world a better place than I found it.
With these three points in hand, I now can prioritize my life. Laundry, paying bills, caring for my children, and heading to doctor visits are not negotiable. But beyond that, during those really busy days, or when someone asks something of me, if it doesn’t somehow loop back to my priorities list, it has become really easy to say no.
Way back in high school or college, if I had truly known what I wanted and written out my priorities, chances are I would have had a very different kind of life. I would have made many different choices and probably would have avoided so many mistakes. Just sleepwalking through life was (and is) not a great option. It’s nice having at least a compass now.
Several weeks ago, my fiancé and I were taking a walk. The weather was beautiful—not a cloud in the sky, warm but not hot. The flowers were in full bloom. And I stopped. I realized that I had conquered my greatest fear (cancer). I walked away from my high paying job, left my alcoholic husband, moved, and became a single mom. And here I was, not sitting in a windowless office in a job that meant nothing to me, not waiting to be screamed at by my drunk husband, not sitting in traffic sucking in fumes. I was walking among the tulips, breathing fresh air, and getting ready to go visit a cancer survivor who was heading into major chemo treatments. I had found the life of purpose. This is what I wanted to do. I was actually living my priorities. And, cancer aside, this made me one very, very lucky girl.