19 Great Truths My Grandmother Told Me on Her 90th Birthday

When my grandmother was diagnosed with terminal cancer on her 90th birthday, I sat with her in a hospital room for the entire day, in silence, in laughter, in tears, and in awe. She spoke softly and passionately about her life and all the lessons she learned along the way.

Source: 19 Great Truths My Grandmother Told Me on Her 90th Birthday

“I have seen and touched and danced and sang and climbed and loved and meditated on a lifetime spent living honestly.  Should it all end tonight, I can positively say there would be no regrets.  I feel fortunate to have walked 90 years in my shoes.  I am truly lucky.  I really have lived 1,000 times over.”

Those are the opening lines of the final entry in my grandmother Zelda’s journal—a 270-page leather-bound journal she wrote small entries in almost every morning during the final decade of her life.  In it, she reflected on lessons she had learned, lessons she was still learning, and the experiences that made these understandings possible.

When my grandmother was diagnosed with terminal cancer on her 90th birthday, I sat with her in a hospital room for the entire day, in silence, in laughter, in tears, and in awe.  Although her body was weak, her mind was intensely strong.  The terminal diagnosis inspired her to think about her life, everything she had journaled about over the years, and reflect aloud.  So, I gave her the stage—my undivided attention—from sunrise until sunset.

As I sat beside her hospital bed, she thumbed through her journal one page at a time, reading dozens of specific entries she wanted me to hear.  She spoke softly and passionately about her life, her loves, her losses, her pain, her dreams, her achievements, her happiness, and all the lessons that embodied these points of reference.  It was without a doubt one of the most enlightening and unforgettable days of my life.

My grandmother passed away exactly two weeks later, peacefully in her sleep.  The day after her passing I found out she formally left her journal for me in her will.  Since then, I have read it from cover to cover countless times.

Although I have shared some of her insights and quotes with blog subscribers and course students in the past, today would have been my grandmother’s 100th birthday, so I’d like to honor her.  To do so, I’m going to share excerpts from the journal entries she shared with me in that hospital room ten years ago.  I’ve done my best to sort, clean up, copyedit and reorganize her wisdom into 19 inspiring bullet points.  I hope you find value in them, too:

  1. There are thousands of people who live their entire lives on the default settings, never realizing they can customize everything. – Don’t settle for the default settings in life.  Find your loves, your talents, your passions, and embrace them.  Don’t hide behind other people’s decisions.  Don’t let others tell you what you want.  Design YOUR journey every step of the way!  The life you create from doing something that moves you is far better than the life you get from sitting around wishing you were doing it.
  2. The right journey is the ultimate destination. – The most prolific and beneficial experience in life is not in actually achieving something you want, but in seeking it.  It’s the journey towards an endless horizon that matters—goals and dreams that move forward with you as you chase them.  It’s all about meaningful pursuits—the “moving”—and what you learn along the way.  Truly, the most important reason for moving from one place to another is to see what’s in between.  In between is where passions are realized, love is found, strength is gained, and priceless life-long memories are made.
  3. The willingness to do hard things opens great windows of opportunity. – One of the most important abilities you can develop in life is the willingness to accept and grow through times of difficulty and discomfort.  Because the best things are often hard to come by, at least initially.  And if you shy away from difficulty and discomfort, you’ll miss out on them entirely.  Mastering a new skill is hard.  Building a business is hard.  Writing a book is hard.  A marriage is hard.  Parenting is hard.  Staying healthy is hard.  But all are amazing and worth every bit of effort you can muster.  Realize this now.  If you get good at doing hard things, you can do almost anything you put your mind to.
  4. Small, incremental changes always change everything in the long run. – The concept of taking it one step at a time might seem absurdly obvious, but at some point we all get caught up in the moment and find ourselves yearning for instant gratification.  We want what we want, and we want it now!  And this yearning often tricks us into biting off more than we can chew.  So, remind yourself: you can’t lift a thousand pounds all at once, yet you can easily lift one pound a thousand times.  Tiny, repeated efforts will get you there, gradually.  (Angel and I build tiny, life-changing rituals with our students in the “Goals and Growth” module of the Getting Back to Happy course.)
  5. No one wins a game of chess, or the game of life, by only moving forward. – Sometimes you have to move backward to put yourself in a position to win.  Because sometimes, when it feels like you’re running into one dead end after another, it’s actually a sign that you’re not on the right path.  Maybe you were meant to hang a left back when you took a right, and that’s perfectly fine.  Life gradually teaches us that U-turns are allowed.  So turn around when you must!  There’s a big difference between giving up and starting over in the right direction.
  6. The biggest disappointments in life are often the result of misplaced expectations. – When we are young our expectations are few, but as we age our expectations tend to balloon with each passing year.  The key is to understand that tempering unrealistic expectations of how something “should be” can greatly reduce unnecessary stress and frustration.  With a positive attitude and an open mind, we often find that life isn’t necessarily any easier or harder than we thought it was going to be; it’s just that “the easy” and “the hard” aren’t always the way we had anticipated, and don’t always occur when we expect them to.  This isn’t a bad thing—it makes life interesting, if we are willing to see it that way.
  7. Our character is often most evident at our highs and lows. – Be humble at the mountaintops, be strong in the valleys, and be faithful in between.  And on particularly hard days when you feel that you can’t endure, remind yourself that your track record for getting through hard days is 100% so far.
  8. Life changes from moment to moment, and so can you. – When hard times hit there’s a tendency to extrapolate and assume the future holds more of the same.  For some strange reason this doesn’t happen as much when things are going well.  A laugh, a smile, and a warm fuzzy feeling are fleeting and we know it.  We take the good times at face value in the moment for all they’re worth and then we let them go.  But when we’re depressed, struggling, or fearful, it’s easy to heap on more pain by assuming tomorrow will be exactly like today.  This is a cyclical, self-fulfilling prophecy.  If you don’t allow yourself to move past what happened, what was said, what was felt, you will look at your future through that same dirty lens, and nothing will be able to focus your foggy judgment.  You will keep on justifying, reliving, and fueling a perception that is worn out and false.
  9. You can fight and win the battles of today, only. – No matter what’s happening, you can resourcefully fight the battles of just one day.  It’s only when you add the battles of those two mind-bending eternities, yesterday and tomorrow, that life gets overwhelmingly difficult and complicated.
  10. Not being “OK” all the time is normal. – Sometimes not being OK is all we can register inside our tired brains and aching hearts.  This emotion is human, and accepting it can feel like a small weight lifted.  Truth be told, it’s not OK when someone you care about is no longer living and breathing and giving their amazing gifts to the world.  It’s not OK when everything falls apart and you’re buried deep in the wreckage of a life you had planned for.  It’s not OK when the bank account is nearly at zero, with no clear sign of a promising income opportunity.  It’s not OK when someone you trusted betrays you and breaks your heart.  It’s not OK when you’re emotionally drained to the point that you can’t get yourself out of bed in the morning.  It’s not OK when you’re engulfed in failure or shame or a grief like you’ve never known before.  Whatever your tough times consist of, sometimes it’s just NOT OK right now.  And that realization is more than OK.
  11. Sensitivity can be a super power. – Although sensitivity is often perceived as a weakness in our culture, to feel intensely is not a symptom of weakness; it is the characteristic of a truly alive and compassionate human being.  It is not the sensitive person who is broken, it is society’s understanding that has become dysfunctional and emotionally incapacitated.  There is zero shame in expressing your authentic feelings.  Those who are at times described as being “too emotional” or “complicated” are the very fabric of what keeps the dream alive for a more thoughtful, caring and humane world.  Never be ashamed to let your feelings, smiles and tears shine a light in this world.
  12. Opening up to someone who cares can heal a broken heart. – Deep heartbreak is kind of like being lost in the woods—every direction leads to nowhere at first.  When you are standing in a forest of darkness, you can’t see any light that could ever lead you home.  But if you wait for the sun to rise again, and listen when someone assures you that they themselves have stood in that same dark place, and have since moved forward with their life, oftentimes this will bring the hope that’s needed.
  13. Solitude is important, too. – Speaking to someone can help, but in moderation.  Sometimes the moments you feel lonely are the moments you may most need to be by yourself.  This is one of life’s cruelest ironies.  We need solitude, because when we’re alone we’re detached from obligations, we don’t need to put on a show, and we can hear our own thoughts and feel what our intuition is telling us.  And the truth is, throughout your life there will be times when the world gets real quiet and the only thing left is the beat of your own heart.  So you’d better learn the sound of it, otherwise you’ll never understand what it’s telling you.
  14. Most of the time you don’t need more to be happier—you need less. – When things aren’t adding up in your life, begin subtracting.  Life gets a lot simpler and more enjoyable when you clear the emotional and physical clutter that makes it unnecessarily complicated.  (Angel and I guide our readers though this process of simplifying and getting back to happy in our brand new book.)
  15. Beginning each day with love, grace and gratitude always feels better than the alternative. – When you arise in the morning think of what an incredible privilege it is to be alive—to be, to see, to hear, to think, to love, to have something to look forward to.  Happiness is a big part of these little parts of your life—and joy is simply the feeling of appreciating it all.  Realize that it’s not happiness that makes us grateful, but gratefulness that makes us happy.  Make a ritual of noticing the goodness that’s already yours first thing in the morning, and you will see more goodness everywhere you look throughout the day.
  16. Who we choose to be around matters immensely. – Spend time with nice people who are smart, driven and likeminded.  Relationships should help you, not hurt you.  Surround yourself with people who reflect the person you want to be.  Choose friends who you are proud to know, people you admire, who love and respect you—people who make your day a little brighter simply by being in it.  Ultimately, the people in your life make all the difference in the person you are capable of being.  Life is just too short to spend time with people who suck the happiness out of you.  When you free yourself from these people, you free yourself to be YOU.  And being YOU is the only way to truly live.
  17. Relationship boundaries are life-savers. – When someone treats you like you’re just one of many options, again and again, help them narrow their choices by removing yourself from the equation.  Sometimes you have to try not to care, no matter how much you do.  Because sometimes you can mean almost nothing to someone who means so much to you.  It’s not pride—it’s self-respect.  Don’t give part-time people a full-time position in your life.  Know your value and what you have to offer, and never settle for anything less than what you’ve earned.
  18. It’s during the toughest times of your life that you’ll get to see the true colors of the people who say they care about you. – Notice who sticks around and who doesn’t, and be grateful to those who leave you, for they have given you the room to grow in the space they abandoned, and the awareness to appreciate the people who loved you when you didn’t feel lovable.
  19. New opportunities are always out there waiting for you. – Nobody gets through life without losing someone they love, something they need, or something they thought was meant to be.  But it is these very losses that make us stronger and eventually move us toward future opportunities.  Embrace these opportunities.  Enter new relationships and new situations, knowing that you are venturing into unfamiliar territory.  Be ready to learn, be ready for a challenge, and be ready to experience something or meet someone that just might change your life forever.

Afterthoughts & Promises

As I’m wrapping up this short tribute to my grandmother, I’m reminded of a poem by Christian D. Larson that she used to have hanging on her refrigerator when I was a kid.  As soon as I was old enough to understand the poem, my grandmother made a photocopy of it for me, and, nearly 30 years later, I still have that same photocopy laminated and hanging on my office bulletin board.  These are words I do my best to live by:

“Promise Yourself…

To be so strong that nothing
can disturb your peace of mind.
To talk health, happiness, and prosperity
to every person you meet.

To make all your friends feel
that there is something in them
To look at the sunny side of everything
and make your optimism come true.

To think only the best, to work only for the best,
and to expect only the best.
To be just as enthusiastic about the success of others
as you are about your own.

To forget the mistakes of the past
and press on to the greater achievements of the future.
To wear a cheerful countenance at all times
and give every living creature you meet a smile.

To give so much time to the improvement of yourself
that you have no time to criticize others.
To be too large for worry, too noble for anger, too strong for fear,
and too happy to permit the presence of trouble.

To think well of yourself and to proclaim this fact to the world,
not in loud words but great deeds.
To live in faith that the whole world is on your side
so long as you are true to the best that is in you.”