A few days ago I turned 42.
Not a momentous age, but I took the occasion to make it momentous. I’m not usually a party person, but I went to a swanky birthday party for a dear friend whose birthday is the day after mine. We had a wonderful time, sipping cocktails and hobnobbing with friends. This was a rare occasion for my birthday, as I prefer to keep to myself and contemplate where I am in my life.
Taking stock once a year seems like a good idea; doing it on a birthday seems like the right time as well. In doing so I’ve come up with a few topics to prompt my contemplation and would like to share them – of course, they can be done anytime.
1. Define the decade you’re in
This seems at first glance to be a self-involved practice, little more than navel-gazing. But I think it’s important that we look at the stages in our adult life so we can find themes in each stage and bring overall meaning to our development.
I would characterize my 20s as the decade of finding my way. Unfortunately, much of that was through seeking approval from others. My 30s was the decade of relationship: a marriage, divorce, a renewed relationship with the church, and a post-anullment relationship that changed my path.
And my 40s?
It might be too soon to tell, but I think it’s the decade of acceptance: of myself, my family, others. I spent much of 2011 working on accepting my true self, flawed but true. I want to be true to the person God wanted me to be. In accepting my family, I was confronted with the need to accept them at holiday time. I really need to let go of the past and see them for who they are now. I need to let them know more often that I love them. That’s what I will work on this decade.
2. Look back over the past year
I think this is always good practice. Many people choose to do this around the new year, and many teachers I know do it in sync with the school calendar. I’ve done it at those times myself, but somehow on my birthday it feels the most personal.
What I do is take stock of the past 12 months: good, bad and otherwise. This allows me to gauge my progress, assess how I dealt with challenges, see if I’ve grown and developed and consider my achievements. I also try to determine how much of what happened over the year was my doing or if it was God’s will. I think about how often I was unable to see God’s will, what happened as a result of that, and what I needed to see.
I look for the lesson involved. This gives me a road map for the coming year. With all this information, I can move forward with a better sense of focus and intention.
I recently learned an excellent technique for making this thought process tangible. I made a pie chart of my life. Each slice of the pie was one area: professional development, spiritual engagement, personal relationships, family, financial stability, etc. (Anyone can choose any number of categories, and can categorize them in any way that works.) Your pie can have two slices or 20, depending on how much is going on for you.
Next is to think back over the past year. Rate your level of attention towards each category in light of your full potential to give yourself to that category. The center of the circle is 0 percent, while the perimeter of the circle is 100 percent. In other words, shade in each slice starting from the center towards the outer edge. How you rate yourself over the past 12 months is entirely up to you.
For instance, this year I made tremendous strides in my personal life and rated my year fairly high. I finally accepted my circumstances as they are: single, childless, less-than-perfect in looks and personality.
But I realized that the more time I spend thinking about what I lack, the less present I am for my daily life. And mindful presence is a worthy goal.
This was the first year I practiced mindfulness in my life outside of prayer. While I’d been doing Centering Prayer for quite some time, I hadn’t practiced mindfulness in the areas of my life that needed it: eating, for instance, or spending time with friends. It really changed my whole approach to each day, and I am able to look back at the past year and see how being mindful allowed me to fully experience my own life in a more profound, complete way.
Speaking of prayer, I included spiritual engagement as one of the categories. In this area, as well as others, I did not use my full potential, so I have my work cut out for me this year.
Some things, namely, my writing, were at about very high (thanks in no small part to this blog). Others, such as spending time with family, were fairly low — less than half. My creative life — dance and visual art — was more than it had been in the past, but less than I’d like. I look forward to spending more time in museums and dance class over the upcoming months!
In doing this exercise, I realized how much I worked on myself over the year. I also came to an important life lesson: If I take care of myself, everything else in my life seems to get taken care of too. This is a huge insight for me, particularly because it goes against my upbringing, which taught me that my self-worth derives only from helping others.
Aside from the life lesson, it prepares me for what I need to focus on for the upcoming year. For instance, before my next birthday, I’d like to be able to say I saw my family more often. Any areas that are less than 50 percent, perhaps, could be worked on for the upcoming year. No one, of course, can give 100 percent to each category; but it’s edifying to see what takes priority and what gets left behind.
Preparing for the upcoming year brings me to the next exercise:
3. Plan the next 12 months
As I mentioned two weeks ago, 2012 is the Year of Forgiveness. I will forgive myself for past transgressions, as well as those who hurt me in the past. I will let go of resentments and grudges. But in doing so, I’m hoping to make 2012 the year I connect to others in a more human way, with more compassion and empathy. By the time I turn 43, I hope my baggage is significantly reduced. We’ll see what happens.
Some other goals I’d like to fulfill over the next 12 months:
- Full-time employment. A very kind and generous CatholicMatch member told me about St. Cajetan, patron saint of the unemployed. I have decided to do one novena per month to this saint, and even if I secure employment for myself, I will recite the novena for all those who are unemployed and under-employed.
- Dance in public more often. In the past, I’d been hesitant to perform at all, even though I practice almost daily. This is the year to perform; and I’ve already secured three events: one with my dance troupe and two solos. Despite the stage fright, I’m looking forward to it!
- Write more. Thanks to this blog, I’ve built a momentum. Now it’s time to get back to my fiction and prose. I am applying for a writing grant that is open to Bronx residents. Here’s hoping!
- Be gentler on myself. Even if I meet none of these goals, I will no longer see it as a failure. Cue the Year of Forgiveness!
I consider the yearly list as short-term goals. The final thing I like to do, in contrast, is think of the big picture.
4. Consider which long-term goals were met
A thought occurred to me just the other day: I am now the person who the 4-year-old me wanted to be. I became exactly who I wanted to be when I grew up, and I hadn’t even realized it. It’s a profoundly satisfying thought.
I distinctly remember thinking at 4 that I was meant to dance. And since 1997, I’ve danced regularly.
I seemed to be very attuned to the kind of dancer I wanted to be. At 5, someone asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I promptly answered, “Charo.” Of course, I just liked her glittery costumes; I had no idea she was an accomplished Flamenco guitarist. But here’s the thing: the form of dance I’ve been studying is the cultural precursor to Flamenco. What a prophecy that I’ve come this close to my childhood goal!
When I was 9, I decided to be a writer. Thanks to the immense generosity and kindness of a certain someone on the CM staff (namely Christina Ries) that dream has come true. I am eternally grateful to her, as is my 9-year-old self!
I’ve had a very rewarding career teaching, but that was not in my childhood wish list. I never once thought about being a teacher. When I was in college, my mentor suggested it, and I remember my first thought: “I wish I could teach college.”
Well, 10 years after that, I got my wish. I now teach for the New York City University system, and I can easily say that this is truly my calling.
I’ve heard priests and other religious leaders say that if you want to know what God’s will is for you, think back to what you wanted to be when you were little. It’s so incredibly comforting to know that I am living out God’s plan for me simply by being myself. This makes me more proud of myself than any other achievement.
Hopefully this series of exercises be helpful to some CatholicMatch members. It is my sincere hope that you will try it out (and be sure to let me know how it goes!) It’s still January and the time for New Year’s resolutions!