Learning from Life

A Time Traveler

In the 2003 book The Time Traveler’s Wife, a man named Henry suffers from a genetic disorder that catapults him into the past and the future at random. In the middle of it all is his wife, Clare, an artist who has had to learn to cope with Henry’s frequent and mysterious absences. “It’s hard being left behind,” she says at one point in the novel, “I wait for Henry, not knowing where he is, wondering if he’s okay. It’s hard to be the one who stays.” 

To complicate matters further, Clare has known Henry most of her life – just not in a chronological way. He begins appearing to her when she’s a little girl, and their wildly unconventional friendship doesn’t take a romantic turn until she finally turns 18. In a scene from the 2009 television drama based on the book, an impish, 6-year-old Clare in a ruffled dress chats with a 30-something Henry in a grassy field under an impossibly blue sky. In the guileless manner of a small child, Clare begins quizzing this friendly grown-up about his life, asking point-blank if he’s married. When he answers in the affirmative, she deadpans, “Do you love her?” His mouth quirks up with affection and irony, “Yes, I love her very much,” he responds. Little does the child realize that someday this handsome stranger will become her husband, although Henry is well aware of the fact as he chatters with a much younger version of his wife. 

Are We Time Travelers, Too?

When I caught this scene on one of the TV monitors at the gym recently, I found the implications intriguing, but quantum physics aside, we humans still haven’t found a way to travel through the ages like Henry.

Or have we?

When you really think about it, we all travel through time, but in a linear, rather than a circular or random fashion. We’re born, we grow into adults and, eventually, we die. Even so, that 70 to 100 years spent on planet Earth is a journey through time. It’s also one heck of a learning experience!

Within that span, we are honed by the environments in which we find ourselves, and we progress through our stages of development at the pace of individuals. Some people grow more quickly than others. Some have more drive, some less. What if we had a chance to spend a few hours with a younger version of ourselves, like Henry does with Clare in The Time Traveler’s Wife? What would we say to that 6-year-old self? How would we convince him or her to listen? How would we prepare that child for a future we’ve already traversed? 

With Life Comes Wisdom

Personally, if I had a chance to interact with a younger version of myself, I would have plenty of advice to share. I would warn that little girl of a time when she would find herself without shelter. I would tell her to start preparing to strike out on her own as soon as possible, separating herself from a toxic home life. I would order her to save every scrap of lunch or allowance money for a time when she would dearly need it. I would urge her to learn basic auto mechanics so she wouldn’t be stuck by the side of the road or in the cab of a tow truck on so many occasions. I also would tell her that studying hard is great – learning is wonderful and personally enriching, even fun – but so is building strategic alliances along the way. There’s something to be said for the claim that “it’s all about who you know.” Operating in a vacuum really isn’t possible in this world. That’s one lesson it’s taken a long time to learn.

I also would impugn that 6-year-old Lindsay to be less trusting – “Not everyone is your friend,” my mother used to say, and, as I would learn on several occasions, no, not everyone is. I would tell my child self, unequivocally, that working hard is a good way to pull oneself from the muck, but hard work only goes so far, and sometimes it can even backfire. I would urge her not to spend her adult life wedged between the pages of books. I would tell her to force herself to get out and participate in life instead of watching it parade by from the sidelines. I would warn her that we can become so obsessed with our worker-bee tasks – our constant, frenetic efforts at personal or financial gain – that it becomes incredibly easy to neglect the things that truly matter in the limited time we have.

Choices and Wisdom

Regardless of our age, we need to understand and acknowledge that “the wisdom teacher” is alive and afoot in our life. Almost every day we have experiences that, if we stop and think about them, teach us something. No matter what our activities entail – school, work, travel, play, reading and so on – we have the opportunity to become a little wiser as a result of something that happens today. In effect, life is always teaching us something.

The key to developing wisdom is not to find it, but to start using it. Granted, we all have much to learn and certainly more wisdom to develop, but if you will stop and reflect, you have enough wisdom in your tank right now to head your life in the direction of your choosing. It may not be an easy journey. It may be unbelievably challenging at times. It may take you years, even a lifetime to get where you want to go, but if we use the wisdom we have and convert it into action, we can make the start. It all depends on the choices you are willing to make.

So, regardless of your age, start using the wisdom you have to identify what is really important to you and how you want to live your life, and then start making the choices you need to make. To some people, what truly matters is serving others. To some it means surrounding themselves with family and friends – or adopting new ones. To others, it’s a career decision, the start of some volunteer work or simply helping the person in need who lives right down the street. We have to use our wisdom to help us determine what things we will pursue in life. If all we live for the pursuit of stuff – new cars, bigger houses, fatter salaries, all the things we have been conditioned to crave in our society – how will we feel at the end of our life? After all, we can’t take those things with us. However, that feeling is likely to be a good one if we made wise use of our choices in determining the type of person we were, whom we loved and the extent to which we used our life to improve the lives of others. 

Gaining Wisdom – a Continuing Project

Gaining wisdom is a life-long project. 

If you are a young person reading this article, or even someone with additional decades of experience, take it from someone who has been there. I have been where you are, or even lower. I have been without food, without heat, without running water, without adequate clothing and without medical attention more times than I care to remember, and, yes, I hated every moment of it and scrapped and scrapped and scrapped until I overcame. To a great extent, I’m still scrapping, still in the process of overcoming, still gaining wisdom.

Even so, I have learned to see the beauty in the struggle and to be grateful for whatever bits of joy can be dug from the ashes. Sometimes, there’s not much else you can do, or at least nothing productive.

So please ask yourself: If I were looking back on the actions I am about to take, or already have taken, what would I advise myself to do, or not to do? How might my actions affect me and the people around me? What can I do to change my fate before it ever unfolds? Or if it has unfolded, how can I move forward in a more productive way? What would you ask your younger self?

Wisdom doesn’t just come with age. It comes with life. The key is not to wait until you have enough wisdom, but to start using the wisdom you already possess to make effective choices in your life. Don’t wait until you have all the wisdom you will ever need, but have no time left to make the choices that allow you to put it to work for you.

Be a giver.

"My father said there were two kinds of people in the world: givers and takers. The takers may eat better, but the givers sleep better."
Marlo Thomas
Daughter of Danny Thomas/Founder of St. Jude's Hospital

Written By Lindsay Jones

Copyright 2014 / Good Choices Good Life, Inc. / All Rights Reserved

"Wisdom doesn’t necessarily come with age. Sometimes age just shows up all by itself." Tom Wilson