The 30 things I learned by the age of 30
My attempt to convey the knowledge I’ve gained in the past 30 years, has proven to be more challenging than initially anticipated. It wasn’t simply a matter of listing a series of learning, but prioritising and selecting the most critical ones, that have left a long-lasting imprint on me and have shaped my persona in the way people and I recognise it today.
Earlier this year, I visited the biggest mosaic museum in the world called the Zeugma museum in Gaziantep, Turkey. I remember that day, when I lurched amid the ancient ruins gloriously erected, I almost felt like travelling back in time. Every mosaic told a story; every coloured stone represented a chapter, which when assembled, recreated a whole era.
As I was approaching 30, a cascade of questions and answers was triggered in my head. What have I learned in the past 30 years? Have I learned anything at all? I reflected, dug up buried memories, relived vivid souvenirs, in an attempt to recreate the mosaic of my own life.
- Everything is transient: Like most people, I grew up believing in eternity. Eternal life, eternal love, and eternal happiness are some of the “eternals” I aspired to reach. Whether instigated by religion or fear, eternity is a myth, a phantom we secretly nurture in the shadows of our thoughts, hoping it’ll become real one day. This is what my recurring losses made me realise. All my life events were like waves upon which I surfed, for just a little while. They all hit my inner shores one day, and disappeared in the sands of my memories. Some things stayed, yes, but they were never the same again. Everything is transitory. Don’t you think?
- “The grass isn’t greener on the other side”: We spend a great deal of our time wishing to have what we don’t have. If we have a garden, we’d wish for a forest, and we have a forest, we’d wish for a jungle, and if we have a jungle, well, we’d wish for a garden. We think that other people’s lives are better. We think their moon is always full and their stars are always brighter. I myself, was not immune to such a demeanour. But oh how mistaken we are! Don’t we know that we all have a burden to carry, that we all are soldiers of life fighting a battle no one knows of? I learned to spend time watering my inner garden and sowing my own seeds. After all, our plants are all susceptible to droughts and worms, no matter in which land they grow. Grass is grass.
- The ego is a weapon of mass destruction: I grew up in a culture that constantly tries to prove itself. Trapped in a struggle between conservatism and liberalism, we perpetually attempt to find an identity that defines us, and reclaim the lost pieces of ourselves scattered between the East and the West. This might be more pronounced in my culture than in others, but I dare say it’s not uncommon to anyone. Don’t we all try to prove ourselves in many ways? Don’t we all want to prove we exist? This is called ego. A dominating power that reflects our desire to impose, conquer, overtake, and win. I myself, fell prey to my ego many times. Pride, arrogance, and pretension are all symptoms of a magnified “I” and major hurdles to achieving one’s full potential. Our ego destroys us, destroys others, and blinds us. I learned to be more humble, more loving, to compromise, and to forgive. In short, I learned to see more with my heart for “it is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”
- Kindness is a weapon of mass construction: Can we all recall a time when we’ve been mistreated? It happens nearly anywhere: at work, at home, on the streets, and in our social circles. Doesn’t it? Mistreatment is a form of violence that fuels the demons of revenge lying dormant beneath our ego. Our reactions often bring up similar levels of anger, abuse, and harshness. I’ve done that a few times, until I finally learned to do the opposite more often. Being kind among the wolves is neither cowardice nor weakness, as our ego falsely indicates. Kindness is a weapon of mass construction, the ultimate expression of maturity and wisdom. It rebuilds the dismantled pieces of love, restores one’s dignity, and soothes even the most painful emotional wounds. Coming to think about it, kindness has always been rewarding to me and has always done me justice. So no matter how strong the urge to hurt or destroy the other might be, I learned to let kindness prevail, because it’s only then that I am a winner.
- Finding a lifetime partner is not a pre-requisite for happiness: We live in a world where finding our significant other is perceived as a necessity, an ultimate goal in itself. Most of us recognize the eternal symphony and its traditional movements sung all around us: “finding the (right) one”, “getting married”, and “having children”. While to some this is a secret recipe for happiness, to me it’s called noise, an irritating resonance in the background. I learned how to ignore it. In fact, I realised that I met many ones, and I believe they were all right. Just because they didn’t stay, doesn’t mean they were wrong. Over time, I learned to compose my own sonata and created different movements. I called them “self-sufficiency”, “autonomy”, “freedom”, and “independence”. I am all these four. I am grounded. I am proud.
- Happiness hides in small things: When I was younger, I created an image of myself at the age of 30 which is today a black and white picture resting in the album of my memory. I kept it there purposefully to remind me of how far I was from reality. All the expectations and hopes I had for what a happy life looks like were merely an illusion. In that photo, I was posing with a husband and three children, all of whom I haven’t met yet. My life today is all but traditional. It doesn’t meet our society’s minimum standards of a happy life. But oh how rich I am! How free and lucky I am to experience adventures out of the ordinary and moments of infinite joy! I found happiness in small things: in the corners of coffee shops, in one line of a book, in greeting a homeless, in exchanging a smile with a stranger, in wandering in a very old castle. We don’t need to follow the norms. We don’t need be conventional. Look around! Happiness hides in small things.
- “Everything is poisonous, nothing is poisonous, it is all a matter of dose”: This learning goes back to my chemistry class in school. I didn’t know back then that it’s a philosophy I should apply in all aspects of my life. It is called moderation, an essential ingredient for my equilibrium. Moderation in love, in fun, in ambitions, brings inner peace even to the most turbulent souls. It has kept me solidly grounded and stable. I notice that the majority of people struggle to maintain a balance and are more inclined towards extreme opposing poles. They either have an overdose of everything or choose never to taste anything. This is perhaps why my pace can hardly be synchronised with the majority. My irritation doesn’t come from what they say or do, but how often they say what they say or do what they do. Too much love can suffocate, while too little love can lead to starvation. I learned to love just enough, have fun just enough, cry just enough, and be… just enough.
- Patience is a virtue: I am an impatient person. I live more in the future than the present. My imagination is always racing with time. I paint pictures of the flowers that’ll grow next spring. I find waiting to be very hard. I never got used to its bitterness. I think waiting is possibly the heaviest burden borne by the spirit. Yet, waiting is inevitable. Looking back at my life, I realise that all the good things that happened to me saw the light after long periods of waiting. It is true these periods were intercepted with bouts of impatience, but they were developed, shaped, and polished by patience. The questions that once tormented me about love, friendship, careers, self-worth and others, all found their answers in my patience. It might be true after all that “good things come to those who wait”.
- Good quality relationships matter: This might be a bit scientific but studies have shown that good quality relationships are associated with better health outcomes, and this is not just physical health. Loneliness for instance increases the risk of depression and is associated with a lower life expectancy. The findings of the Harvard Study of Adult Development recently presented on TEDx confirmed an ancient wisdom we all know. The study watched the lives of people for over 75 years and concluded that “good relationships keep us happier and healthier”. I learned to nurture the relationships I have, to protect and safeguard them. I still despise the abundance of people in my life. I don’t have neither time, nor energy, nor the appetite to collect friends and acquaintances. I am just happy and grateful with the few ones I have.
- “We accept the love we think we deserve”: Or so I’ve heard for years and years without knowing what this means exactly. I’ve accepted mistreatments many times. I wept as a result of it many times. Yet I’ve made the same choices time and again. Why do we re-engage, over and over again, in experiences that once made us suffer? Today the answer comes as clearly as ever: because we don’t think we deserve better. Over time, I learned to appreciate myself, value myself, respect myself, love myself, and it’s only then, only when I saw how worthy I am, that my choices became rightful, healthier, nurturing, and enriching. I do deserve a good life. So do you. I do deserve to be loved. So do you. I do deserve to be treated well. So do you. Today, I will never accept anything less. And so you will.
- Reading is an antidote to mediocrity: Perhaps this is why our world is mediocre. I was oblivious to the miraculous effects of books for years and years until I had my own space. I plunged into the mystical world of books and enjoyed swimming in an ocean made of ink with waves made of thoughts. Every time I open a book, I feel like lifting a curtain off of my soul. And every time I close a book, I realise that I am one step closer to myself. I learned that reading cures loneliness, answers our most complex questions, transcends distance and time, and unites us with humanity, history, space, and the future.
- Most people are hungry for love: Have you ever been verbally or emotionally abused? Well, I have. Although my heart has never become immune to negativity, hurtful language, unkindness, and cruel behaviour, I’ve learned something that eventually changed my perception towards such utterly common behaviours. I believe that behind every negative comment, every wounding word, every insensitive gesture, there is a person that hasn’t been loved enough. What a pity! How many people crave to be loved yet never admit so! The lack of love must have created an enormous painful void in the soul. I believe we all have a bird inside us. When loved enough, the bird flaps its wings and fly. And when not, it uses its beak to destroy. What I learned, is to always do my best to love that bird.
- Silence is healing: Perhaps this is why our world is so ill. My culture loves noise. Laughs are loud, greetings are loud, farewells are loud, everything howls. There is surely a reason why most people hide behind the noise. Do we know what it is? I think to avoid silence. In silence, people can hear themselves and they’re all too often scared to listen. Silence is like a stream of fresh water running inside the spirit, and filling the cracks created by noise with a soothing serenity. Silence heals, clears up confusions, rectifies prejudices, brushes off the remnants of uncertainty, and brings people closer to each other. I learned to listen to the sound of silence. Silence is a story teller, a counsellor, and a friend.
- Between love and hate, indifference is the worst: There is nothing worse than being stuck in a state of nothingness. A state where you feel neither hot nor cold, neither excited nor tired, neither interested nor bored, neither happy nor sad, neither calm nor angry. You float in a vacuum that is full of oxygen yet void of life, full of space, yet void of freedom, full of silence, yet void of peace. Do we exist just because the matter composing our body is alive? Or does existence go beyond the matter, beyond survival, to where the soul vibrates, sings, loves and hates all at the same time? I exist when I love, when I hate. I exist because I feel. Indifference is death.
- Sometimes a job is just a job: many of us work in jobs they don’t like. We invest a great deal of our time, mental, intellectual and emotional energy in the workplace. We project our whole being and get paid for it at the end of the month. At work we love, we envy, we seek attention, we yell, we agonise, we bare burdens, because we are all humans no matter where we are. However, we often fail to recognise that we all have potentials beyond the work we do, the job we perform, and the salary we get. A job is just a job. We are much more than that. Most people think I can change the world because I’m a humanitarian worker. They don’t know that I’ve changed the world much more outside my job: at home, on the phone, in a pub, in face to face conversations, in coffee breaks, in my dreams. My job is just a job and I am much more than that.
- It’s never too late to change a life path: The conviction that our life path is like a ladder we need to climb takes a very linear approach to life, a trail that takes you from A to B in a straight line. The reality however is very different. Many lines intersect, bend, elongate, and even shrink to nearly just a point. This is how my life has been so far. A complicated geometry with multiple starting points, endings, parallels, and spirals. As I’m moving forward, unwrapping my inner gifts and warming up in my passion flames, I’m discovering who I really am and what I really want. I now know that if I wake up one day and decide to quit, I will quit. It’s never too late to veer, never too late to change directions. I will still be following a line, a line that my heart will draw, and I know, deep inside, that this line will not be linear.
- Every reality is wrong, every reality is right: People are a combination of rainbows and water. An assortment of mellow colours that gets either diluted or saturated with values, opinions, perceptions, and attitudes, throughout the course of their lives. This eclectic nature of being engenders multiple realities that are faithfully praised by its creators, by us. All people have realities that look right to them but wrong to others, acceptable to them but dejected by others. I’ve asked myself: what makes one more right than the other? What absolute truth is there when all truths hold true to one person at least? I learned that everything can be right and everything can be wrong. It all depends on who’s judging.
- Promises are easier broken than fulfilled: I learned to promise nothing to no one. For why would I commit to a future that falls completely outside of my control? We often underestimate the power of words said today not realising that they’ll carry a big responsibility tomorrow. We like to play tricks with the future by imagining it, fantasising about it, creating and re-creating the end results. And then what happens when it’s there? Welcome to the land of disappointments! Our promises are words that time randomly and playfully rearranges until a whole new chapter is formed, a whole new meaning is fathomed… and the promise is completely broken.
- We are more fragile than we think: There are moments in life when everything seems to be just fine, when the forces of nature seem to be directed towards the center maintaining a balance, an equilibrium. Then all of a sudden, out of the tender placidity of our being, rises a turbulent whirlwind: break ups, divorces, deaths, rejections, disappointments… Moods start to swing, thoughts dismantle, principles collapse, promises break, infidelities erupt, and we lose balance. The self-portrait we once painted that showed an invincible persona, suddenly loses these very traits amid the transformation of our life events. We then remember how fragile we are. We remember how delicate orchids can be. We remember that we are breakable. We remember, the “unbearable lightness of (our) being”.
- Principles should only be forged with experience: I learned to never bind myself to a principle against which I haven’t tested my temptations yet. This realisation came after I broke many principles I once thought are unshakable. I’ve learned to destroy and rebuild my principles with experience. With time, I learned to calibrate the appropriate levels of right and wrong, the ones that I judge as acceptable to me. I forged new ways of thinking. I defined my values. And it’s only then, that I was able to articulate what my principles are.
- A little bit of chaos is vital: I come from a culture adorned by chaos. Even our breathes are chaotic and lack rhythm. You can argue it’s pollution; I think it’s fear. Two years ago, I joined a culture that loves discipline. Everything is very neat and tidy: the streets, the human behaviours, and of course The System. Having experienced the two sides of the discipline coin, I came to the conclusion that a little bit of chaos is necessary. It boosts creativity, gives ample space for people to think, to act differently, to come up with different solutions. Tough rules, systemisation, policies, and automation are the enemies of creativity. Chaos is a symbol of life. “You must have chaos within you to give birth to a dancing star”. Now I know why every time I look at the sky, all I see are shooting stars.
- Magic is real: Do you feel at times that our universe speaks to us in a mysterious code that we are unable to fathom into a clear language? The more time passes, the more I find myself looking at the world with reverence and awe. How small we are in this infinite universe! We’re finite entities in an infinite world! It’s true that we reached a decent level of understanding in cosmology, physics, mathematics, and biology, yet there are so many things we still don’t know. Our universe is phenomenal! What about the notions of destiny, serendipity, meaningful coincidences, synchronicities…? My life has been full of such mysterious events. I believe in magic. I believe magic is real.
- If it doesn’t feel right, then it’s not right: Sometimes we decide to take a step in our life. We decide to just “go for it”, because everything around us tells us it’s right. We think and rethink about the whole scenario, analyse it, link the causes to the effects, and yet, no matter how coherent and logical all the data seems to be, something (inexplicable) leaves us worried and doubtful. Does it sound familiar? Well, it is definitely to me! I would describe this “something” as a tickle in my heart, a little vibration in my beats out of the ordinary. And I feel it, no matter how low the frequency is. I learned to trust my intuition and listen more to my inner voice. I learned that it’s the one that tells the truth.
- Sometimes, by walking away you move forward: Throughout my walk of life, there were times when I stopped for a (long) while and allowed my heart to land, beat harder, and get attached. Get attached to what? To people, objects, places, comfort zones… And then I got stuck. This is what attachments do, don’t you think? They mess with time and space dimensions, disorient us, and leave us lost in a circle dancing tango… alone! Sometimes, it’s only by walking away that we can re-established our space and time coordinates. It takes time, courage, and a strong will to let go, but eventually, “the show must go on”.
- Art is a language we should learn: It took me time to understand the language of art. Just like silence, art has a healing power. Painting, writing, dancing, sculpting, all speak a similar language: the language of beauty, spirituality, and life. Museums to me are like sacred temples. Blessed are all the pious who bow with admiration to the beauty of art! Let us stand still and marvel at the secrets of a painting! Let us allow the silence in colours brush off the noises inside our heads! A world without art is like a desert without sand: lonely and incomplete. So let us rejoice!
- It is how it is: Why do you think the sky is blue? Why the colours have no smell? Why the sounds cannot be seen? Well, because it is how it is. How often do we find ourselves lost in the maze of life events, not knowing the how and why, the cause and the effect? We see people die every day for no apparent reason. We see people break up, marry, weep, laugh, fall, stand up and we just don’t know how and why. As time moves on, we accept to live with this mystery. We accept that some questions have no answers. In fact, we accept silence to be our only answer. “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar”, and this is all we need to know.
- You don’t need a lot of money to be happy: In case we haven’t noticed yet, we are all slaves of consumerism. Money making keeps climbing the ladder of our priorities, not so much by willingness as by sheer necessity. I acknowledge we do need some money to live a decent life where our rents are covered, our bills are paid, our food is provided, or even our travels plans are secured. But when I look around me and try to make sense of the unhappiness I see in people’s eyes, I see things like low self-worth, fear of intimacy, an urge to be understood, a need to be loved, a demand to be recognised, a dissatisfaction with the present, a shyness to show the real self, a desire to bond with the other… They’re all things that can’t be bought by money yet are all needed to be happy.
- “What you resist persists”: Sometimes, when our emotional buttons are pushed as a result of say, death of a closed one, rejection by a partner, or a tough conversation, we either deny or confront those very bitter and acidic feelings bubbling inside us. But don’t you feel it’s sometimes bigger than you? Don’t you feel that no matter how hard you try to eliminate that bitterness, the after taste remains long after the incident? I learned to neither deny nor confront, but to embrace. I learned to embrace my sadness and accept it, until sadness itself dissolves in the warmth of the embrace, and eventually, evaporates.
- “We are good by nature but corrupted by society”: This is a philosophy by J.J. Rousseau that dates back to the 18th century. I am a believer of it. I believe people are born good, until they become “layer makers”. What a masquerade we live in! People have become too busy building and embellishing their layers: layers of power, fear, hesitation, you name it. It’s a world of fake smiles rather than genuine tears. A world where praise is articulated in the most polite and formal manner, rather than through eyes sparkling with admiration. People learned how to breathe behind masks. I learned that the world around me is not real.
- My 30 lessons are all but static: I am a flower that withers in the wind, blooms in the sun, hides in the snow, dies in the desert. My life has been a cycle of seasons that comes and goes, every now and then. If this holds true, then how can I not change, transform, mutate, collapse, get restored, almost continually? If the universe itself is dynamic, infinitely expanding and contracting, then how can I not dance with it? How can I take everything I shared with you as static? My 30 lessons are all but static. They will change, transform, mutate, collapse, get restored, almost continually. Earlier this year, I visited the biggest mosaic museum in the world. Now I remember that the mosaics I liked the most, are the ones that have been partly erased, the ones whose colours have been partly altered. They’re the ones that have bore the traces of time. Now I know that in another 30 years, this is exactly how my mosaic will be.