Six Things I Wish I’d Learned When I Was Younger

61st Birthday CakeToday is my 61st birthday — I think. It may be my 62nd birthday, since I’m not really sure when or where I was born. (I have one birth certificate that places my birth in Illinois, and one that says I was born in Dallas, and the dates on the two are different — and neither matches the “amended birth certificate” issued to my adoptive parents.)

Getting older isn’t much fun, but I can honestly say that I’ve learned a lot in my years on the planet. Some of the lessons I learned the hard way, and some I learned from watching others. Many of the things in my life have been wonderful. I’ve been the luckiest person in the world on so many occasions when fate or destiny or providence put me in the right place at the exact right time to meet someone wonderful and get the chance to do wonderful things.

And some of the experiences in my life were horrific. I could have done without that stay in a battered women’s shelter, and I certainly could have done without having to learn to care for my adoptive father’s personal hygiene needs (after a series of bad strokes) while I was still in junior high school.

Some of the lessons I learned along the way might help someone else, so here is my list of the things I know now that I wish I’d learned earlier. Don’t laugh, please. Every one of them was a hard-learned lesson that changed my outlook on life, work, and family.

Nurture Does NOT Trump Nature

As an adult adoptee who told as a child that I didn’t need to know anything about my birth family because “they don’t matter,” and as a step-parent to several wonderful adults and foster grandparent to several wonderful grandkids, I can tell you definitively that the old saw about nurture trumping nature is flat wrong.

Yes, the experiences my adoptive family gave me — for good and bad — helped make me who I am. And I know that my time with Chrissie, Rose, Jerome, Jordan, Amber, Kameron, Phil, and Nicholas — all wonderful people who are very much a part of my family although we do not share any genetic material — helped them become the people they were intended to be. I’m very grateful to have been a part of their lives, and they gave me far more than I ever gave any of them.

But the truth is that genetics matters a lot more than we think it does. I got my first inkling of that in the early 1980’s when a friend who shares my birthday and was placed by the same adoption agency I was went on a search for his birth family. He not only looked exactly like his birth mother and half-sister, but he thinks like they do. Both he and the sister he didn’t meet until they were in their 30’s had similar life stories — both had decided as young teenagers what careers they wanted, and both were hired for jobs that normally require a college degree before they finished high school. No one who saw Mickey, Michelle, and David together would ever have thought that they had just met. They were so clearly a “family” who shared far more than their looks that it literally took my breath away — and broke my heart.

I was in my 40’s when I got the non-identifying information about my birth family. I won’t write the whole sordid story of my adoption here, but I will say that reading the heavily redacted story of my birth parents lives was like reviewing my own resume. From hobbies to careers, to religious beliefs and musical preferences, it was all there on paper. I am my father and mother’s daughter, even though I never even saw a photo of either, and have never met anyone other than my own children and grandchildren to whom I am related by blood.

I’ve been active in adoptee rights groups for over 20 years, and I’ve heard this same story again and again. “I can’t believe how much I am like my birth family!”  If you’re an adoptive parent, don’t take that the wrong way. It doesn’t mean that your adopted child doesn’t love you or need you. It simply means that genetics matters, too.  The more you know about your child’s genetic history, the easier it will be to bond with them and nurture them to become who they are intended to be.

Words Hurt More Than Sticks and Stones

When I was a little kid, my mom always said, “Sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never hurt me.” She lied.

Words — thoughtless, careless, brutally honest or intentionally cruel words — hurt far more than broken bones. And the pain lasts a lot longer, too. I wish I learned this when I was a child. It might have kept me from being the cause of pain to others if I had really understood that what I thought of as sarcastic wit was actually hurtful rhetoric that could cause lasting damage.

Some of the words directed at me over the years still hurt, decades after the person who aimed them in my direction has forgotten all about them. For instance, my adoptive parents always told me that they didn’t care what I looked like — that they loved me anyway, unlike the birthmother who put me up for adoption because she didn’t like the way I looked.

I was 45 years old before I understood what that actually meant. I thought the fact that I had crossed eyes and coke-bottle thick glasses made me ugly, but when I finally got my non-identifying information from the adoption agency I found out that my birth mother had lost one, perhaps two, older children to heart defects.

When I was born, a third blue baby, she really must have HATED seeing yet another child who might die because there was no effective treatment for the heart defect that I unknowingly passed down to my own granddaughter. But I survived — I didn’t actually have tricuspid atresia, and my “blueness” was due to a minor heart defect that closed on its own.

What a life-changing thought: my mother didn’t reject me because she thought I was ugly — she placed me with an agency that promised good medical care because she didn’t like the fact that I was another blue baby. Context matters more than I relized.

Marriage Doesn’t Equal Constant Agreement

I grew up in the 50’s and 60’s, when fairy tale romances were still held up as the ideal that women should aspire to when they got married. One of the novelists I loved growing up was science fiction master Robert Heinlein, who ascribed all kinds of ideas about marriage to his female characters.

I incorporated many of Heinlein’s ideas in my own ideas about marriage, including believing that phrases like these would help me build a strong relationship.  “I won’t disagree with my husband in public.” “Love is that condition in which the happiness of another person is essential to your own… Jealousy is a disease, love is a healthy condition.” And let’s not forget the big one: “Women will forgive anything. Otherwise, the race would have died out long ago.”

Despite the fact that I consider myself an enlightened feminist, I worked hard, for decades, to never disagree with my husband in public, to put other people’s happiness before my own, and to forgive anything. And one day, sometime in my 50’s, I realized that all three of those ideals are dead wrong.

Putting other people’s happiness before my own left me bitter and unhappy. Never disagreeing with my husband in public allowed him to make some really stupid financial and business decisions — whereas calling him aside and disagreeing vehemently with him before he made those mistakes could have saved me a lot of money and grief. And forgiving anything is just plain stupid. Some things are unforgivable.

Save for a Rainy Day

Yes, saving money is a good thing. I’m personally very, very grateful that part of my household income comes from dividends, royalties, and other “passive income” produced by thrifty investments made long ago. But I used to take it to extremes.

I love my house, but I bought very few of my “things” new, and I didn’t pay retail for any of them. Nearly all of the furniture was second hand (from thrift shops, auction houses, or estate sales). My husband and I are Quaker, and we try to live simply so that others can simply live.

One of the precepts we try to live by is to buy only what is needful. So there were years when I bought no new clothes, no new shoes, no luxuries of any kind. Whether I could afford them or not, I did without in the name of simplicity.

And one day I looked at my closet and found it filled with things I hated. Outdated, outmoded, and just plain boring. It was one of those epiphany moments when I wondered if it would really have been so terrible if I’d bought one or two new outfits every season, or picked up a pair of shoes for no other reason than that I liked the way they looked.

Late in life, I’ve begun to indulge myself a little more. I work less, spend more time doing what I want, and occasionally splurge on something “just because”.

Someday May Never Come

One lesson I did learn early in life is that someday may never come. I was adopted by a childless older couple, and one of the things I heard a lot about growing up was how wonderful it was going to be “someday” when daddy retired and they began to travel the world the way they’d always planned. But he had his first stroke the year I was 11, and someday never came for my parents.

They lost everything to medical bills, unpaid insurance premiums, and a business partner (my father’s younger brother) who took advantage of the situation. And they spent the rest of their lives — my dad died when I was 30 and my mom died when I was in my 40’s — at home. They went nowhere. Not to the movies, not out to dinner, not to church: he was in a wheelchair or hospital bed, and she stayed at home to do her best to care for him, watching endless hours of television to pass the too-long days.

So when I was 50, I looked at my husband and said, “It’s someday.” We had our bucket list of things we really wanted to do — places we wanted to see — and we had enough money put aside to do them.  So we did. It was, without a doubt, the best decision I ever made.

That doesn’t mean that you must have a pile of cash to make your “someday” real — it just means that putting things off indefinitely may mean putting them off forever.  And that would be sad. I don’t intend to die today, but if I do, I can honestly say that there are few things I wanted to do that I failed to do. (There are some, of course — no one gets everything they want. But fewer now than there would have been if I hadn’t learned not to wait too long.)

You Can’t Please Everyone

I have been fortunate enough to have met and talked with some of the most amazing people in the world — celebrities, technology pioneers, and interesting characters from all walks of life. One of them was singer/actor Rick Nelson. I was scheduled to have brunch with him before a scheduled performance in Dallas the day after he died in a plane crash.

His last big hit was a song called Garden Party, written by lyricist John Fogerty based on Nelson’s story about his 1971 show at Madison Square Garden, where he was booed off stage because he didn’t look like the 1950’s heart-throb people had come to see, and insisted on playing some new music as well as his old hits.  The refrain of the song goes, “But it’s all right now, I learned my lesson well. You see, you can’t please everyone, so you got to please yourself.”

I’ve never been accused of “going along to get along.” Few people who know me well would call me a people pleaser. I’m too blunt, too much of a loner, and too unconcerned with what other people think about me. But all the same, I admit that I have spent an inordinate amount of time in my life trying not to offend people.

Judge Robert Bork, the jurist whose nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court was derailed by a series of political attacks, changed that attitude for me. I was backstage at a conference put on my one of my clients, and the client — who has been a friend for many years — was yelling at me about something that wasn’t my fault, that I wasn’t responsible for, that I had fixed hours before he found out there had been a brief problem.

I’d worked with this client for many years, and we’d fallen into a kind of dysfunctional relationship where I shielded others from the worst of his antics. I knew that he was narcissistic and manipulative, but he was (and is) brilliant. So I let him yell at me. He fired me regularly without ever expecting me to actually stop working.  I saw it as protecting the team, but it was really just enabling his bad behavior. That day, he stumped off on his crutches when he’d finished his tirade. (He’d fallen off the stage during a rehearsal and broken one leg.)

After he left, Judge Bork walked over. I hadn’t realized he was waiting backstage for his presentation, which was next on the schedule. He handed me his business card, and said softly, “Tell the truth. He didn’t fall off stage. You pushed him. Don’t worry. I’ll defend you. No jury would convict you — anyone who saw the way he treats people would think it was justifiable.”

It put things into a whole new perspective, so I quit my job representing the company, and went out and bought myself a small reward for not actually pushing my former client off the stage or beating him about the head and shoulders with his crutches.  And I stopped putting up with other people’s bad behavior in the name of not offending anyone.

Ever since that day, when someone behaves badly, I simply remove myself from the situation. If that means unfriending them on Facebook, that’s what I do. If it means standing up and walking out of a luncheon, then I do that.

I simply no longer allow other people to mistreat me — or my family — to avoid making a scene. If they don’t like being called on their bad behavior, that’s simply too bad. I don’t deserve it, and I won’t take it any more.

Don’t Tell Me Worry Doesn’t Work

Yes, I know I’ve already listed the six lessons I wish I’d learned earlier. But there is one final thought I want to share.

It’s a lesson I learned from the amazing Marilyn Edwards Younger. She was one of the smartest women I’ve ever met, although she didn’t have a string of college degrees — just the kind of wisdom that comes from a life well lived.

One of the first times I called Marilyn at home, her answering machine message said, “Hi, this is Marilyn. Sorry I can’t come to the phone now. I’m probably off somewhere worrying about something. And don’t tell me worry doesn’t work. Most of the things I worry about neer happen.”

Truer words were never spoken. Most of the things that used to worry me never happened — or if they did, they were much less of a problem than my imagination made them out to be. I still worry sometimes, but I’ve finally learned that most of my worries are purely imaginary — and the others are beyond my control.

If I’d learned that in my teens or 20’s, who knows how much easier life would have been?


About debmcalister

I'm a Dallas-based marketing consultant and writer, who specializes in helping start-up technology companies grow. I write (books, articles, and blogs) about marketing, technology, and social media. This blog is about all of those -- and the funny ways in which they interesect with everyday life. It's also the place where I publish general articles on topics that interest me -- including commentary about the acting and film communities, since I have both a son and grandson who are performers.
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7 Responses to Six Things I Wish I’d Learned When I Was Younger

  1. I love this post. Beautifully written, relevant.

  2. Karen Kelsey says:


    • debmcalister says:

      Thanks, Karen. And congratulations to you and Gabriel for next week’s big event! I wish you much happiness, always. Really enjoying having Duncan around for a bit this summer — he is such a wonderful young man!

  3. Lisa Halliday says:

    OMG – rolling on the floor laughing about the Judge Bork story. Fortunately, I wasn’t at that conference, but I have certainly been on the receiving end of a certain person’s tirades, too.

    • debmcalister says:

      Yeah, it’s funny in retrospect. But that day, it was like a bolt from the blue and I realized just how the relationship had gotten twisted. It was good for everyone, I think, because it made me step back and start sticking to my knitting — so that when I did work with that client again, it was from a much healthier place. You know that I adore him, still, but I was part of the problem then, and Judge Bork’s comment really made me stop and think. I mean, Robert Bork isn’t exactly known as a rescuer of damsels in distress, and the fact that he walked up to a total stranger and made his comment really showed me what I must have looked like to an outsider.

      Regards, Deb

      • Lisa Halliday says:

        I know – that’s what made it such a stunning story. A total stranger who didn’t rescue damsels in distress said that. It probably was like that ABC show “What Would YOU Do” where actors mistreat each other in public to see how strangers will react. I guess Judge Bork would have passed!

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