As this wet and now snowy year winds down, I continue one of my favorite Stranger traditions. In the days after Christmas each year I start compiling my frustratingly-vague and probably obnoxiously-boastful list of the year's happenings.
You kindly read Stranger, some of you for many years now, and see the evolution of thought and experience I traverse, an evolution that is really ordinary and not all that special. The best thing about Stranger to me, and the whole reason I started Stranger in the first place, is that here I have recorded, by mere virtue of writing as I age, the progression of self. I've documented my thoughts and captured my experiences, exaggerated as some of them may be, through the vocabulary and lens of understanding I had at the moment of writing. And it's bizarre and interesting and sometimes embarrassing to me to look back over those writings and see what has changed and what hasn't.
I started Stranger in 2007. I was barely 23 at the time. I was a baby. I was in college.
And now, more than eight years later, I look at that early Stranger version of myself who thought his 30s were an eternity away and who could never have imagined what his life might be when he reached them. And it's strange to me. It's nostalgic in a way. And I'm not sure I really know how to explain this, but it makes me really proud. I'm proud of my hard-earned lessons that have shaped me into who I am now, even if most of those lessons were a result of my own foolish decisions and even if my continuing flaws are still exceedingly clear to me.
This year was no exception in my hunting and gathering of those hard-earned lessons.
In 2015 I looked out over my quiet city from my office window at 3:00 in the morning. I drank from a mosque's fountain per a midnight request. I cried when someone I cared about died. I visited a prison. I felt inadequate as a homeowner. I threw up on a mountain in Bosnia in front of an audience of best friends. I met a lot of homeless people and ached from it. I argued an important case in front of a judge and felt proud for days. I succeeded at the Ironman and then completed one. I forgot to take the garbage out. A lot. I was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. I was confused on a floating island in South America. I attended a wedding in Cleveland with good company. I was a terrible landlord. I tried to just enjoy the moment in Jackson Hole and not worry about the future. I sold Polynesian food during a tornado. I deeply regretted arranging a blind-date. I dance-walked to a Croatian beach in the middle of the night with some British people. I lost sleep over a flood. I took selfies in a Manhattan McDonald's at 4:00 AM. I called 911 on a door-to-door salesman while he listened to the call. I gossiped with my grandma at a family reunion. I found some peace after paying a very hefty price. I danced in a bar, barefoot, with strangers. I improved an important relationship. I was threatened in a Serbian stairwell by a concerned citizen. I lost my temper with some dishonest people in a large meeting. I stood up for myself, even though it was hard to do. I harvested raspberries. I swam with strangers in Montenegro. I was mean to someone at a wedding when I didn't have to be. I talked to people about child abuse and tried to help.
In 2015 I learned that it isn't always my responsibility to punish people when I believe they have behaved badly. I learned that every action and every inaction is tightly tied to consequence. I learned that hard conversations are often a necessary component of meaningful progression. I learned that while I sometimes regret being impulsive, I never regret being spontaneous. And relearned that everyone is fighting an unfair battle, even my "enemies."
But more than anything else, this was the year that I finally learned how to be proud of myself.
The day after Ironman Boulder I wrote to you about my Earth-shattering epiphany that hit me in the final miles of that 12-hour race, an epiphany that I think was so obvious to so many of you already. I told you that it finally occurred to me that:
"Success is nothing more than persevering when perseverance is hard. Success isn't measured by money or friends or awards or finishing races. It's not something you achieve or capture. Success is a state of being. One that is maintained only with consistent effort and one that is lost when principles are abandoned. It is there to embrace every single time something becomes difficult and you have the choice to face it or shrivel. And those times come every moment of every day for every person."
2015 was yet another year full of opportunities for shriveling. I made a lot of mistakes this year. A lot of mistakes. Just like I do every year.
But the big difference this time? I'm not ashamed of those mistakes. I'm happy for them. Because they gave me opportunities to shrivel. And I never shriveled. And that feels like a huge success.
It's impossible to live life without looking like an idiot sometimes. And so it seems to me that it might be more productive to embrace the idiocy in its aftermath than to hide it. Because our mistakes are a waste if we don't learn about ourselves through them.
And our interactions with each other, the strangers all around us, are wasted as well if we don't use them to learn something.
A stranger is two things. It's an unknown, and it's a person. And sometimes when we use the word "stranger" we do so in the spirit of emphasizing the unknown part and ignoring the person part. And that's a shame. Because the unknown is what makes a stranger exciting and surprising and scary but the person part is what makes all of those things matter.
I'm grateful for you, Strangers. Who have traveled yet another year with me, without shriveling, and have helped make the exciting and surprising and scary so much more meaningful. And, well, strange.
It was a strange year. It was a strange year because this is a strange life. And the only thing that remains consistent year after year is that it just gets stranger.
Thank God for that.
~It Just Gets Stranger