Recently, a friend I thought I knew and could reliably predict surprised me. In a good way. And it made me think about how people can continue to change.
This is a very close friend; we’ve maintained our friendship for decades. We bonded over similar high school biology class projects and have remained friends since then. We’ve supported, shared, and laughed our way through life as we attended different colleges, had heartbreaking and hilarious adventures in dating, built careers, got married, and, most recently, both retired. So I know her extremely well. And that’s why I was so startled when she recently tried something new – something I told her very confidently that she would hate – and she liked it!
This was so unexpected that it jolted me free from the assumptions I had unknowingly built over the years about who she is. I had been confident that I knew her well enough to predict her likes and dislikes. But I was wrong.
This experience reminded me how important it is to stay curious. About the people in our lives who we often assume we know so well that they won’t ever surprise us. And even about ourselves.
Although we should never expect or demand it, I see that people change. My friend isn’t the same person she was at 16 or even a decade ago. Some of the experiences she’s lived through in the past few years have changed her. And that led me to an unexpected revelation – even in the second half of our life, we can still change. She has changed. And that helps me believe that I also can change.
Recognizing that we can continue to change brings a certain freedom to getting older. And with that freedom comes a measure of responsibility. We’re responsible for choosing whether we get more solidly set in our ways (of acting and thinking) or whether we become more open to curiosity and new experiences.
Joan Chittister (in The Gift of Years – Growing Older Gracefully) says, “In some ways, we are all just getting to be more of who and what we have always been. Which means, of course, that we can decide right now what we intend to be like when we’re eighty: approachable and lovable, or tyrannous and fractious…We are free now to choose the way we live in the world, the way we relate to the world around us, the attitudes we take to life, the meaning we get out of it, the gifts we put into it. And all of them can change.”
Remaining open and curious brings an inevitable vulnerability. But fortunately, getting older also brings perspectives that can help us manage that vulnerability. We have already experienced the disappointment of attempting to suppress who we really are to better “fit in” and conform. We’re more aware of the passing of time and realize our time and energy are finite. And now we’re less willing to spend those limited resources on things that don’t actually matter to us.
Hopefully, we can use those perspectives to encourage growth and change in the better parts of us – the part that looks for ways to help others, the part that is curious and still wants to learn, the part that believes we are more than our body and can remain active and interesting as we age. We may decide it’s finally time to forgive the hurts we have been holding onto for far too long. Or choose to stop judging ourselves harshly for not being some unobtainable, idealized version of ourselves we constructed in our mind years ago.
We can’t control many things as the years pass, but we can always choose our responses and attitudes. This means we have great power but also great responsibility for our happiness.
I hope that, like my friend, I sometimes surprise the people who love me. I hope they see changes in me that lead to openness to new experiences, an attitude of curiosity instead of fear, and a willingness to take risks and try new things that might create a richer, more meaningful second half of life.
A Closing Prayer
Although we may fear the changes that come with getting older, help us remain open to new possibilities and adventures as they arise. May we not become so fixated on being safe that we miss opportunities to change and grow, sometimes surprising even our closest friends! Help us realize that we can choose what parts of ourselves we encourage and allow to grow. We decide whether we become cranky and curmudgeonly or curious and open. If we feel lonely, give us the courage to risk being vulnerable and reach out to connect with new people. If we’re holding onto anger, let us be loving enough to forgive. If we’re caught up in judging ourselves or others, give us the grace to accept imperfection and the empathy to understand other points of view. Amen.
Excellent. Just excellent.
I’m grateful you didn’t delve into the specific Biology project that is the initial basis of our friendship (graph paper, the precursor to Excel spreadsheets that bring us both such joy today). And you neglected to mention Springsteen concerts, whether in the pit or in the third tier.
“You can’t stop the waves but you can learn how to surf” — one of my mantras. Or, another, that I stole from you: “Be Curious. Approach not knowing what is coming next with curiosity rather than anxiety.” How about excitement rather than fear?
Truthfully, I didn’t think I would like the aforementioned new experience either. Therefore, your prediction that I would be mentally reviewing my to-do list and the tasks I could be accomplishing while I was miserably wasting my time was realistic. I surprised myself. It’s still possible. As long as we are breathing, we can continue to grow and make choices, for the better and for the worse. It’s having the awareness of these possibilities that is hard to accept. I think most people would rather play victim to their outcomes rather than realize many outcomes are the result of self-made choices.
I was open to a friendship with this introverted, artsy, quiet, redhead when I was in 10th grade. She was very different than my cheerleader personality. Turned out to be one of the best outcomes in my life. Absolutely no regrets. I adore you, Tacky.
Yikes – my brain had conveniently lost all memory of making graph paper charts! I’m very grateful someone had the brainstorm and invented Excel, truly a life-changing innovation (and a joy for us compulsive data trackers). Who would have guessed that a head cheerleader would become a lifelong friend? God was working in our lives back then, although we were clueless about his work.