There was the typical amount of squabbling in any big-sister/little-brother relationship. Most of the time we were close; occasionally somebody did something to somebody else and somebody else threatened to tell on somebody. At one point, around ages 5 and 7, an egregious deed was brought to the attention of our father, who was most likely preoccupied with recording himself chanting in Old Church Slavonic. Disturbed and irritated at the interruption, he still managed to give us a quick life lesson. In an exasperated tone he said, “If someone tells you that you’ve wronged them in some way, you need to say, ‘I’m in the wrong. I’m sorry.’” That was all we remembered of the concise lecture. But learning the value of a sincere apology has stayed with us throughout our lives.
Most people can’t put their finger on the one most important thing they’ve learned in their lives. I think that’s because there are different things at different points in our lives that are equally important: learning to read, learning to cook, learning to drive, for example. The most important things you’ve learned don’t have to be profound, and they can be viewed different ways without decreasing their value: to do (swim), to be (courageous), to think (I can do this).
Some of the things that top my list: to keep trying (but know how to let go when it’s time), to apologize sincerely, to forgive, to be grateful for everything (good or bad), to never take my loved ones for granted, to not let an opportunity pass me by. And something else I’ve learned that might not stand out for others: self-awareness. When I might be going manic, I’ve learned that if I notice the symptoms early on I can take some emergency medication to halt the process, to keep myself from feeling the relentless, agonizing churning and saying or doing things I might regret. This self-awareness is not an innate characteristic I’ve had; it’s one of the most important things I’ve learned.
Life is about the choices you make. That’s another big lesson I’ve learned in life, and one that I’ve tried to teach my boys. But unfortunately I think it’s one of those things you have to learn by doing, by making the not-so-good choices that bring about this realization. That’s why it’s a lesson, and often hard-won. Perhaps the most important things we learn in life are those that change the course of it – or help us get through it.
At age 14, three days after seeing his newborn cousin for the first time, my autistic son asked:
“How old will he be when he learns to laugh?”