1. This fall I learned that empathy is more about the space you hold and less about the words you say.
My five-year-old instructed me on empathy this fall in a moment that, as Havilah would say, stopped me in my tracks.
This girl of mine moves through her world with a dizzying vitality.
Her favorite way to greet a new friend, and by new friend I mean the complete stranger she just spotted across the room five seconds ago, is to barrel towards them at a dead sprint and wrap herself around their waist in a joyous full-body hug.
In our family full of shrinking violets, Abigail stands out in high-definition.
But I watched in awe this fall as my headstrong girl observed a friend overwhelmed with sorrow, sobbing uncontrollably.
She came alongside, rested her little hand on their arm, and said with a holiness that was heavy, "I know you're sad. I can see that you're sad."
And then she sat. Without moving. Without speaking. For a good long while. Until the tears stopped falling and we were all able to move forward together.
I contemplated with horror the way I would have responded had I arrived first on the scene.
Can you imagine the world we would live in if we could all learn to hold space for others with such tenderness and grace?
I was struck by the ministry of her presence. And I was reminded, not for the first time, that in all the most important things, she is my greatest teacher.
2. This fall I learned that marriage doesn't play by the rules.
Or maybe I should say my marriage doesn't play by the rules.
For example, I can't tell you how many times as a young couple my husband and I were told, "You must, must, must combine your finances completely the instant you get married or you'll never have a trusting, healthy relationship."
Not that we had much to combine at 22 and 23 with a handful of student loans between us and no assets to speak of, but we dutifully merged our mostly empty bank accounts and followed this advice to the letter for a decade.
And then we didn't anymore. It turns out our marriage got a lot healthier and more peaceful when we opened separate bank accounts. Strangely enough when I finally shared what we had done out loud in public, a surprising number of friends sheepishly raised a hand and said "Us too."
I was told that husbands and wives must, must share a bedroom (and have a juicy sex life to boot). Turns out our marriage got a lot healthier when we let that go too.
We were told when your marriage gets in trouble, just go to therapy. Turns out after four different couples therapists, hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars, our marriage actually got worse, not better.
It's not that we are anti-therapy. My husband is a therapist after all, and I adore my individual therapy sessions. It turns out marriage therapy is a lifeline for many struggling couples, but in our situation there were factors at play that made couples therapy unproductive.
The truth is, all those marriage rules are just generalities. They hold true for many couples, maybe even the majority, but they don't hold true for everyone.
Every couple whose marriage stands the test of time has to write their own rulebook. And at the end of the day the only rule is to love.
For us right now love looks like separate bedrooms and separate finances and accepting that where we are right now, leaning into the beautiful along with the hard, is right where we're meant to be.
3. This fall I learned that life is a game of Solitaire, not a game of Chutes and Ladders.
Not long ago I was listening to Jen Hatmaker and Annie F. Downs on the For the Love podcast, and tucked away in the next-to-last question was this nugget of gold that hasn't stopped speaking to me.
Annie was explaining how all her life she felt like she was playing Chutes and Ladders, where she rolls a six and chutes back five while the person beside her rolls a four and gets to ladder up twenty. Do you ever feel like you're making all the right choices, but still falling farther and farther behind everyone around you? I know I do.
We all know that's not a helpful way to look at the world and it feels downright awful to nurse those feelings of inadequacy.
But Annie said something that set me free. She said we have to recognize that we are not all playing the same board game.
It's more like we are all playing solitaire. Our own unique game of solitaire.
She explained that when you play solitaire, there are something like 80,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 different possible deals you can have. That's how many different set ups you can get from the same deck of cards.
That's what are lives are. We're all just playing the deck of cards we've been dealt.
What someone else is able to do with their deck of cards has absolutely no reflection on us. We're playing a completely different hand.
Maybe the hand you were dealt wasn't that great. Or maybe my hand has some serious shortcomings. But if you win, that doesn't mean I lose. In fact, it doesn't change my game of solitaire one bit.
The best thing we can do is to play our own hand as well as we can and cheer on those around us. Because we are all just playing our own game of solitaire.
If you've enjoyed reading the lessons I've learned this fall, head on over to Emily P. Freeman's to connect with the rest of the What We Learned Community.
And if you'd like some guidance on how to start your own quarterly reflection practice, check out episode 61 of the Next Right Thing podcast.