By Niamh Collins
One lesson I will forever carry with me from the lips of my petite, sparkly-eyed mother is that in life there is no manual. The meaning of life and how to lead it cannot be found scribbled in the back of an unreliable shelving unit instruction leaflet from Ikea. It presents us with an exciting yet horrifying predicament: we are responsible for the decisions and actions we take, so what do we do next?
My fear of lif, or perhaps more accurately my difficulty with it, had always been I wasn’t ‘doing it right’ (whatever that meant), I was not living freely enough, I was not making life-altering discoveries in my absent ponder while the kettle boiled. I was not being impulsive, I would not find myself washed up on Waikiki beach screaming at the top of my lungs, ‘this is a good day to be alive’ after too many overpriced cocktails and a severe sunstroke. My decisions are made with laborious scrutiny, often disguised behind jovial humour and passionate deliveries of Doris Day’s mantra, ‘que sera sera’ whilst I secretly chew my nails and ask everyone I care about what I should do. We are often insecure about being assertive when it comes to decisions relating to our future. Why? Maybe we simply do not want to make a decision we may later regret and only have ourselves to blame for it?
I always wished to be more decisive than I was, than I am. I didn’t want to do ‘life wrong’. As I misquote, ‘When Harry Met Sally’, ‘wouldn’t it be so awful to not go on that date and twenty years down the road realise that another woman is married to your husband?’ Life seemed like a game of darts, you try and hit the best decision every time, or as close as you can get. My problem came with a simple question, what were these ‘best decisions’ I was aiming for? Were they academic achievement, were they happiness, love, were they anything that would give me the feeling I was successful, I was living to the best of my ability so I could one day turn around and say with a conclusive shrug to my great-grandchildren that I lived hard and fast and with no regrets? Cue my beautifully meditative, insightful mother, who has lived a life path she could never, like the majority of us, have predicted, and one she would not begin to predict into the future as she is all too aware of how quickly the tide can change.
I quote my mother a lot. Her philosophical musings are not those of an academic, she would not call herself an academic in the slightest. The university she attended was ‘the university of life’, the degree does not come with a long robe and a ribbon tied scroll (however, I might purchase both those items in the near future for her to amuse us both.) The lessons you learn cannot be found in a textbook, they cannot be examined in an hour and a half with 2 pages of A4 notes. The degree is as much about improvisation as it is planning.
Some live by the ten commandments, I am not a particularly religious woman. I try instead to take inspiration from my mum’s 20 rules for happiness. Number 1. There are no rules…! Her qualifications to give such advice are merely practice and experience. I count myself truly blessed to have them, and will be forever grateful to her, as will any children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren I may have, to be raised with careful attention to such wisdom…
1. Everything is achieved through hard work and often a stroke of luck, but don’t think hard work is the only route to happiness. Happiness emerges from the bonds we make with people, feeling content within ourselves. Success cannot be measured by a bank balance or career progression.
2. Tell the people you love that you love them every time you see them. Not out of habit, but because you mean it. Love is the greatest legacy you can leave someone. Don’t use ‘love’ in a flippant manner, often we say ‘i love that’, ‘gee, I love them’, it should be poignant because it comes from the heart, it is greater than ‘like’. It loses its power when we use it as a throwaway.
3. If there’s a mug in the sink just wash it up. Period. Otherwise it accumulates into a full scale war with fairy liquid and no one wants to see that.
4. Learn to trust people. Some will let you down, but to share a burden can be a relief and often a relief to the person you’re sharing it with, often people can relate much more than you think.
5. It is instinctive to judge but do not let preconceptions overshadow new discoveries. Never assume a life story – it is rare you will be right. (Someone told me they ‘ just knew’ I had a French bulldog and a fireplace – this was news to me…)
6. A family is not just about blood. Family are the people you connect with, love and cherish regardless of relation. It is a ‘give and take’ relationship, a strong unit because everyone has something to contribute.
7. Grades and wealth mean little in the scheme of things. Just because someone is in first class it doesn’t make them a first-class person.
8. If in doubt make choices on your instincts, if something doesn’t feel right often it is not! Opinions of others will often contradict with other opinions but listen to those who you trust and respect, a new perspective can be amazingly insightful and useful. It takes bravery to make decisions and be proud of them. Often they lead you to the right place, even if you don’t know it at the time.
9. Intellect is not everything, you remember if someone is kind long before you remember they were clever.
10. Always be sympathetic to people with back pain – it’s often unlike anything you can imagine.
11. If anything happens to me, always make sure your brother wears deodorant.
12. Life is too short to deny yourself a caramel digestive – take another.
13. Travel whenever you can, true life lessons can never be taught in a classroom.
14. Good parenting is not about being right. Good parenting is about understanding, unconditional love and being able to admit you don’t know all the answers, but you will be there for support regardless.
15. Be reliable, few people in this world truly are.
16. Love yourself, not narcissistically, but realise your worth and don’t let people treat you badly. You are worth more than that, walking away is not defeat, it is often self-preservation. If people do not appreciate you for everything you give, that is their loss.
17. Inspirational quotes are good for the soul. So is tea.
18. Do something spontaneous every now and then, it is what we do not plan that often is the most enjoyable and memorable.
19. Let’s be honest, none of us know what the hell we are doing, but we are doing our best, to make lives full of meaning, honesty, and integrity. You are going to make mistakes along the way, but just enjoy the journey, not worrying about the things you cannot change (though through courage and perseverance many things can be), they will work out one way or another.
20. Oh… and always make your bed in the morning. Going to sleep in an unmade bed might just be the most depressing thing ever, besides British weather.
– words from a graduate of the university of life –