10 Things I’ve Learned: Sara
As this post is being published today, I’m flying down to El Salvador with Unbound. And much of that is because of this lovely friend right here.
Everyone, meet Sara.
I met Sara years ago at my church through a sushi cooking class that I happened to be teaching. Another friend had told me beforehand that I really, really needed to make a point to introduce myself to his friend Sara who was attending because she was “super cool” and he thought that we totally needed to become friends. Many years, many conversations, many laughs, many book clubs, many dance classes, many happy hours, and many heart-to-hearts later…I have to agree that he was right. We totally needed to become friends. :)
Part of what I love about Sara is that she is one of those friends who’s just a sheer delight to be around. I mean it. Whenever I hear that Sara’s going to be at a happy hour or a friend’s house, I’m stoked because she has a way of bringing this contagious energy and joy and laughter (her laugh is the best!) to a gathering. But she also brings a lot of honesty and intelligence and humility and curiosity and depth.
She would be the first to tell you that much of that, and much of what has shaped her in general this last decade, has been her job at Unbound. There, she works as part of a team in the international programs department that helps monitor their program offices in India and Kenya, both of which places she travels frequently. (Yeah, she’s totally that friend who — when someone asks, “Where’s Sara tonight?” — no one bats an eye when the response is, “Oh, she flew to Africa last night.”) The work she does with Unbound there is important and courageous and hard, and she has been at it now for a long time. But man, she loves it. And she deeply believes in it. And she positively lights up when she gets to talk about the people she knows, literally all around the world, who are a part of it.
But even beyond her work, Sara’s just one of those people who is always learning, always dreaming, always challenging, always serving, and always celebrating the heck out of life. Which makes me pretty darn lucky to be her friend. And which is one of the reasons why I was extra excited to see what she would have to say with this series.
So without further ado, here is Sara sharing 10 things she has learned.
1. Stretchy pants make everything better
I feel like I’m always late to the game when it comes to the really good stuff. I’ll start geeking out on a band/album YEARS after they/it were popular, or will start watching a show on Netflix just as everyone’s preparing for the season finale (i.e. LOST).
I avoided stretchy pants for a while for reasons that I can’t exactly pinpoint – I remember telling a friend once that I didn’t think I could wear leggings because my legs were too close together (yes, I am also rolling my eyes at this) – but it doesn’t matter. I get it now. Jeans are the enemy, stretchy pants are the best, and I want to be wearing them as often as possible.
2. To seek diversity
I have a tendency to surround myself with people who are verrrry similar to me: book-reading, Jesus-following, wine-drinking bleeding-heart types. These are my people.
It is reeeeeally important for me, though, to seek out people who are different than me, if only to remind me that the world is much bigger than my small circle. Travel helps, but so does spending time with people from other cultures within my own city, or venturing to the eclectic or boring parts of town, or getting to know my neighbors. My hope is that I can surround myself with people and experiences that will challenge me in my thinking and living.
3. There’s beauty in the breakdown
First of all, let me be clear – I’ve lived a privileged life. I know I’m pretty lucky.
There have been some pretty difficult spots, though: Moving several times as a kid. Bad breakups. Hurting people I care about. Spending several days in the hospital in India. Losing some of my favorite people. Etc.
Despite these things, however — because of these things — I am a better person. Each challenge or mistake has taught me something or has made me more understanding, more resourceful, more appreciative. The great paradox of life is that beauty can come from ashes. It is true, people.
4. There are few things that I really “need.”
There are lots of things I feel like I “need.” My phone, the AC on a humid day, a good wifi connection, a car. These things – the comforts of life – are not bad. They are actually pretty great. (Especially the AC.)
Through my job, however, I get to spend time with families who live in pretty different circumstances. And you know what? They don’t need those things that I think that I “need.” They survive and thrive with much less. They remind me that I already have the things that are really important: food, water, healthy and safe living conditions, meaningful work, and a supportive community.
To help me remember this, I’ve taken up the practice of fasting the last few years. Not from food, necessarily, but from things to which I may have an unhealthy attachment. When I am preparing myself for Lent each year I run through a list of things I could “give up.” Every time I hit a certain thing on the list that causes me to say, “Ooh, I don’t think I could give THAT up”…which obviously means that that is The Thing. So I bite the bullet, make myself live without it for 40 days…and realize that I didn’t actually “need” The Thing in the first place. It’s a good reminder.
5. I don’t have to prove myself to anyone.
I think all women (probably men too) have experienced those friendships (or even romantic relationships) in which you feel like you’re always trying to “one-up” each other, or that you have to continually prove yourself to even participate in the relationship. In my younger days I had a couple of these toxic friendships in which I placed a lot of value on what the other person thought of me. These relationships are exhausting.
I tried to keep up my “end” of these relationships until it hit me one day: I actually didn’t need these people’s approval. Their opinion of me didn’t actually have any effect my opinion of myself. I had finally internalized that I is kind, I is smart, I is important.
Those friendships didn’t change much on the surface, but everything changed in how I approached them…and, more importantly, how I felt about myself. That has made all the difference.
6. Expect the best of people.
I had a boss once who had higher expectations of me than I had for myself. She had me work on projects that I thought were over my head and gave me responsibility that I didn’t think I deserved. It took a while, but I eventually realized that I am actually capable of a lot more than I had thought. It was super-empowering.
In general, my experience has taught me that people (colleagues, children, the random guy walking down the street) respond to how you treat them. If you tell them (through words or actions) that they’re incapable/hostile/[insert negative adjective here], they’ll probably believe you. If you approach them with high expectations, openness and a smile, it’s very possible that they’ll blow you away.
7. The power of emoticons
Because sometimes, an emoticon allows you to express yourself in ways that the written word just can’t. (The ones on Skype are the best. They’re animated. So expressive!)
8. Do things that make you happy…
…Even if you’re not “good” at them.
I recently had a revelation about this. I spent years dancing in my childhood. I loved it, even harbored a small dream of becoming a professional dancer, but I was never great. When I started playing sports in junior high I stopped taking dance classes and never picked it back up (even though I realized after a couple of years that sports were definitely not my thing).
Fast forward to my 30s: I’m happily employed in a field that I love, yet I still harbor a tiny dream of being a dancer. (Dreams don’t have to be realistic, right?) I am content to watch my dancer friends perform and to consume a moderate amount of dance movies.
Several months ago, however, I was reflecting with Ali after a friend’s performance about how, every time I watch people dance, I sort of want to be doing it myself. She said, “Me too! I’ve been thinking about taking a ballet class…do you want to do it together?”
I’d never really entertained the idea of taking ballet classes as an adult, but I agreed. And we did it. And even though it was pretty challenging, it was SO FUN. I remembered why I loved it when I was a kid! I decided to buy a pass and keep taking classes.
After I stopped dancing as a kid I always thought that dancing just wasn’t for me because I wasn’t good enough to do it professionally. Guess what…I am discovering (now) that that isn’t true. I still love dancing, I love moving, it makes me happy, and that is a good enough reason to do it!
9. Sometimes I need a break from my own culture.
My own (United States Midwestern) culture is pretty noisy. While we don’t necessarily have car horns serenading us from 6 a.m. to midnight (as is the case in some places in India), it sometimes feels like we are continually assaulted by some sort of cultural “noise”: the media, advertising, social media updates, messages from society telling us things about ourselves that may or may not be true.
I don’t always notice that it is happening until I forcibly remove myself from my culture. I love traveling because this is an obvious way to do that, but I also love solitude and silence as a chance to step away, let the “noise” die down, and just be myself.
10. I still have a lot to learn.
The library is one of my favorite places. I went recently and had that happy, overwhelmed feeling that I always get in libraries: that there is so much to learn in the world and that I will surely never learn it all.
If I’ve learned one thing, it’s that I’ve only scratched the surface. I know that I will continue to learn from my experiences and that (hopefully) my paradigm will shift again and again (even if only by small degrees). My hope is that I can remain committed to “renewing my mind” on a continual basis…if I can do that, I should be okay.