Written by Winnie Little, New Zealand
When I turned 21, a much-celebrated milestone in many cultures, I felt sure that I possessed the skills and maturity to effortlessly navigate life. I lived with two close friends in a beautiful city, and we spent most of our time studying, socializing, and travelling together. I was about to begin a competitive postgraduate program, with a bright future ahead.
When I moved back to my home city to complete my studies, I left behind my close university friends. After many years of being independent, I resented living at home. Soon, the rigorous academic schedule of my postgraduate studies overwhelmed the self-confidence I had built up. Problems kept coming one after another: financial worries, loneliness, and strained family dynamics. This was to continue for almost a decade. But although there were difficult times, there were also some life-changing lessons to learn.
Here are a few lessons I’ve learned:
Build Your Relationships
During my final year of university, I lived in a complex with 9 other students. One girl was especially friendly and would come chat with me when I returned from class in the evenings. In addition to our Christian faith, we shared a sense of humour. I was very fond of her and felt that we could have become good friends. However, I was usually anxious to start work on my thesis, so these conversations were brief but thoroughly enjoyable. I intended on keeping in touch over our term breaks, but would procrastinate initiating contact with her until the university started again and once again, I got busy.
One summer, I received a message to tell me that my flatmate had passed away. A wave of shock ripped through my body as I realized that I would never again be able to ask her about her day, or pray for her, or send her a word of encouragement. My gut twisted with regret when I recalled all the wasted term breaks I could have used to foster a relationship. I no longer had the opportunity to discover the person that God made her to be.
In 1 Peter 4:7-8 (The Message), Peter writes, “Everything in the world is about to be wrapped up, so take nothing for granted. Stay wide awake in prayer. Most of all, love each other as if your life depended on it.” Though I’ve always known this, I now more fully realize how our family, friends, and co-workers are here on earth for a finite amount of time, and so I more consciously look for the opportunity to do good towards them. I make a concerted effort to remember important dates, and though my brain fails me, Google Calendar does not. I follow up on invitations from friends who want to spend time together. Though I declined invitations in the past because I did not enjoy the activity proposed, I now see it as precious time to spend with people.
Refuse to be Offended
In my early 20s, I frequently wrote detailed complaints about service staff who disappointed me. The airline representative’s tone was condescending. The makeup artist refused to exchange a faulty product. The internet service provider could not explain to me why I was being charged for a phone line that was not even connected.
I was angry because I assumed that these people were being intentionally rude and obstructive. Their actions implied that I was ignorant or dishonest. I spent hours venting to anyone who would listen about how my day was marred by appalling service and incompetent staff.
But working in a hospital for many years changed how I dealt with anger and offence. In my work, I saw how disease often brings fear, pain, loss of independence, and diminished income to patients and their family. I saw how many of these people still needed to go about their daily lives, go to work, and interact with the world despite their heartache and hardships. I realized that the people I once thought rude or offensive may actually be suffering in ways I cannot understand.
The Bible makes it clear that we are to walk in love, and love is not easily angered (1 Corinthians 13:5). Instead, we are to make allowances for each other’s faults (Colossians 3:13). These days, when my feathers get ruffled, I stop and think, “Do they mean it like that?” or “Why might someone act in this way?”
I find this helps me practice compassion, which is a powerful antidote to anger. Life is more enjoyable without anger and offense.
Learn to Say “No”
I am a people-pleaser. I have always been afraid that drawing boundaries would make me look lazy and selfish, so I agreed to everything. I have volunteered in multiple church ministries that left no time for rest. I have given more money than I could afford to charities. I rarely share my opinions in a group. At one point, I took on a part-time job on top of my full-time work simply because I did not want to offend anyone by refusing the offer. Everyday life became suffocating and tedious because all my spare time was taken up doing things that drained me.
1 Corinthians 12 tells us that, as members of the body of Christ, we each have different gifts. Paul emphasizes these differences by comparing us to various body parts. “If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be?” (1 Corinthians 12:17). In other words, God made us with particular gifts fit for different purposes. God’s plan is to use these different gifts “for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:7). I am to serve with the gifts God has given me. Trying to be someone I’m not ultimately does nobody any good.
I am learning to nicely say no when I’m asked to do things that would not be suitable for me. Through the help of a counselor, I am learning how to make better decisions: Do I have the skills, time, or passion for a particular role? What other existing commitments do I have? I have learned to delay any decisions by asking for more time to think about it. And I am confident that, in the long run, I will be able to better serve those around me when I do not wear myself out.
Rethink the Way I Help Others
In the same way, I have found that in seeking to please others, I was often trying to fix my loved ones’ problems. I thought I was doing my duty as a Christian since I was helping to bear someone else’s burdens (Galatians 6:2).
One time, a friend lamented to me about a relationship with her boyfriend, who seemed to be causing her great misery. His words and actions frequently hurt her feelings and exacerbated her self-doubt. I suggested counseling, sent her links to relationship articles, and told her to end the relationship. Imagine my frustration when—after all my cajoling—she came back complaining about the same issues!
That was when I realized that I had failed to evaluate whether my friend had even wanted my advice or help. I had never noticed that Paul balanced out his instruction to bear one another’s burden with Galatians 6:5, “each one should carry their own load.” I naively assumed that I could simply make complex problems disappear, when ultimately, my friend is responsible for her own choices. In fact, all my “advice” probably felt very condescending to her, especially if all she wanted was someone who would listen.
There are many ways we can bear each other’s burdens without taking them on as our own. A kind word can cheer up an anxious heart (Proverbs 12:25). We can also weep with those who weep (Romans 12:15). These days, I try to listen carefully and ask specifically about what they need. I pray for them to be strengthened; but I make sure to rein in my tongue. I am learning to exercise patience as I listen, and to make peace with my helplessness. God can and will work in His own time.
These are some of the lessons I learned in my twenties. In short, I have learned to be cherish my relationships, be more compassionate, respond lovingly, and recognise my limits. I hope you may find them encouraging, and perhaps they will help you navigate your own challenges in life.