Five Lessons Life Has Taught Me

There are times when it seems impossible to say anything fresh or worthwhile about the biggest news of the day: dogs on tops of cars, Secret Service agents on a toot, "wars on women," recall elections, shootings, thoughtless comments from famous people who ought to know better, civil wars abroad, the price of gasoline at the pump.

As I looked around this week, it seemed like a good time to summarize a few things I've learned along the way, from a life lived in these increasingly interesting times. These are lessons I find myself turning to more and more often these days. Perhaps readers will have their own lessons to add to the list. In no particular order, here are a few of mine.

1) Indignation is not a virtue. It can be a useful "alert system" for us, but merely being indignant about things is more choleric than it is virtuous. Yet we build a great deal of our public dialogue on indignation today, as if displaying it on cue or encouraging it as the basis for policy is a sign of character, commitment, or genuine concern.

Indignation isn't always well founded, and when it is, it requires judgment and humility—and often the counsel of many wise heads—to channel it properly. We find in our own lives that acting relentlessly on indignation wears out our families and friends, even when we are sometimes right. Indignation is a burning sentiment that requires the control of discipline and wisdom. In itself, it is not a sign of virtue; the virtue comes from what we do about what makes us indignant. Hard as it is to accept, the principle of Philippians 2:3 (all citations NIV)—"in humility, value others above yourselves"—applies even to the people who make us indignant.

2) All the other people are not the problem in your life. This lesson is hackneyed for a reason: it's not only true, it's one of the most important, liberating lessons any of us can learn. Most people spend at least some time as adolescents being certain that if only all those other people would change—if only the world would become different—they could finally be happy, finally be satisfied; finally be who they were meant to be.

But the world never does change to suit our preference, and the other people persist selfishly in their individual personalities, desires, and flaws. If we're honest with ourselves, we eventually acknowledge that we didn't know as much as we thought we did about what all the other people should be doing. Probably the greatest life passage for each of us is discovering that if we will go ahead and change, as we know perfectly well God is asking us to, everything does change for the better for us—even if the other people didn't change at all.

3) God made all of us different for a reason. I have found this to be an extremely important lesson. We're not all meant to be the same person. It's a positive good that other people have very different personalities. The world would not actually work very well if we were all alike. Other people's personalities may rub against us, but that's not necessarily a sign that anyone needs to change. We don't have to feel condemned if others sometimes react badly to our personalities. Neither should webe anxious to communicate how badly we have reacted to theirs.

For me, this is not just a lesson accepted on principle. As a Naval officer and leader, I found over the years that there is strength in diverse personalities. No one type of person can cover everything. Annoyingly pedantic people can often remind us of very important things, and excitable, precipitate people can get things started before it's too late, even if they need some reining in from time to time (and perhaps some cleaning up after as well).

I have also found that recognition of this truth can't be enforced with rules. Like so many aspects of character, wisdom, and success, it can only be learned and internalized through the personal choices of individuals. The military sets standards that demand character and performance from those in uniform, but we can't make systems that improve us by mechanical or rote processes. The key to good attitudes and good leadership is the voluntary transformation of the individual.

4) What you say now will be remembered later. I mean this lesson not as a warning but as a basis for hope. We usually speak of this axiom in terms of how our words will come back to haunt us, but I mean here that they can and will do positive things in the future. People remember what you say, and that includes the wise, astringent, and helpful things—especially, in many cases, if they react to them very negatively at first.

Parents can attest to this. Their children affirm back to them, in later years, the wise counsel that didn't go over very well the first time. But often, the words that are remembered are compliments and words of encouragement. I have had sailors come up to me after many years and tell me how they had been encouraged by words I didn't even remember uttering. Teachers have similar stories to tell.