I’ve come to embrace that famous Forrest Gump quote, “Life is like a box of chocolates.” For a time, I had resented my life not going as I had planned, just as I used to dislike biting into a chocolate with a coconut center. I’ve learned to like coconut, just as I have learned to roll with the punches and be happy with whatever life brings my way.
I’ve discovered three secrets to rolling with the punches: follow your heart, embrace what is, and let go of the past.
Follow your heart—at least some of the time.
Engineering seemed like the logical choice when I was picking a college major. I was good at math and science, and engineering paid well. The only problem was that my first job out of college, designing cruise missiles for a large defense contractor, sucked the life right out of me. One day as I sat at my drafting desk, I popped my head up and looked at the rat-maze of cubicles around me—cubicles filled with tired old men, old enough to be my father, and a few younger men, already with the hunched shoulders and pinched faces of frustrated ambition—and I thought, “Is this all there is? Is this my future?”
Logically, it was. It was what I trained for. It paid well. But my heart said, “No.” Actually, it was more like, “Hell, no!” In fact, I recall telling my husband that I got more joy out of cleaning a toilet. It took a couple of years, but I finally quit and, aside from some part-time jobs now and then, I never have worked for someone else. Sure, I might have made more money if I had stuck it out in engineering, but at what cost? A fractured personality? Years of unhappiness? The pinched face of frustrated ambition?
I’m glad I decided to change my plans. To give myself permission to redefine who I was.
Follow your heart.
Follow your heart and embrace what is. Embrace the present as a gift, even when you have to accept the blessings of an alternate path.
In 1981, at the age of twenty-seven, just nine days after giving birth to my first child, a baby boy, I was rushed to the hospital with severe hemorrhaging. Later that day, after four hours of surgery and ten units of blood, I discovered that my first child would be my last. To save my life the doctor had performed an emergency hysterectomy.
That wasn’t what I had planned. And I had to mourn the loss in order to embrace a new reality. I would never again feel the flutter of new life growing inside me. I would never give birth to another child. I would never have a mini-me, a baby girl who looked like me. I regretted what I would never have.
Three years after that we adopted a baby girl, a beautiful blond-haired, blue-eyed little girl who looked nothing like me. She didn’t grow under my heart, but she grew in my heart.
It wasn’t what I planned. It was an alternate path to parenthood. It was a blessing of an alternate path. Find the blessings and embrace what is. It shouldn’t come as any surprise that you can’t change the past. Why stew over something you can’t change? You can’t change the past. Whenever you start feeling a twinge of regret, say these five words: I can’t change the past. Try it now. Say it like you believe it.
“I can’t change the past.” Those were the words I told myself as I opened the door to my kitchen pantry and looked at the pencil marks that measured my children’s growth. I ran my finger over the lines, read the names and the dates, and smiled as I saw how my youngest son, Yuri, whom we adopted at age twelve from Russia, had been so much shorter than his sister, but within three years was six inches taller. And then, with a wistful pain, I closed the door, wondering for a moment if I could take it off its hinges and keep it forever. I had thought that I would be living in that home forever; but no. We lost that home in a foreclosure in 2011. And it was time to go. Time to let go of the past. Time to not be bitter about what I couldn’t change, but to move on and be a better person, a more compassionate person, a more grateful person. I simply had to let go of the past.
So, I took a last look around, walked out of the house and into my car, glanced in my rearview mirror, and never looked back.
It’s hard to go forward if you are living life looking at the rearview mirror. When you catch yourself in a moment of regret, looking to the painful past, say, “I can’t change the past.” And replace the thought of “I wish I had” with “Next time, I will . . . .”
You can’t change the past, but you can affect the present and the future. So when it comes to the past . . . let it go. When you are at the crossroads of heart and mind, follow your heart. If things don’t turn out as you planned—and they usually don’t—accept the blessings of an alternate path. Embrace what is, and then let go of the past.
Diane Windingland is an author, speaker, coach, and communication expert. She is the founder of Small Talk, Big Results. Learn more at www.SmallTalkBigResults.com.