learning to live

This week, I got to teach some of my favorite principles in the world while teaching the character of “initiative.” These were things I have spent so much time thinking about, considering, and pondering. Things like “Just do it,” “You only live life once,” “Do Hard Things,” and “No regrets.” Yet even though I’ve talked about and tried to live these things for years, simplifying them into language that can be understood by 13 and 14-year-olds who barely speak English taught me so, so much more. I may have been teaching principles to live by, but I was the one learning to live.

I started by writing “Just do it” on the chalkboard, along with the Nike symbol which they would recognize. I asked them why they thought Nike’s motto was “Just do it,” and they would usually come somewhere close to the answer I had: Nike is about sports, and they know that if you ever want to succeed in sports, you have to just do it. Just start.

I asked them if they had a dream. Some wanted to go to America. Some wanted to go to high school. I told them about the dream I had: to go to China. Our dreams can be like a mountain; they seem so far away, so big and hard to climb. During our trip to the countryside, we climbed a “mountain” (stairs that led all the way up), and it was very hard. But instead of never trying, we just took it one step at a time. I told them about the steps I took to accomplish my dream: talk to my parents, email the principal, get a job, apply for a visa, book a flight, and then come. “And now I am here, with you! You are my dream,” I told them. And I reminded them again that to do great things, they must begin now. They must take initiative and just do it.

But why?

I wrote the words, “You only live life once,” on the board, along with the Chinese translation, “你的生命只有一次。Then I drew a timeline with a baby on one end, and old person on the other, and a little mark at the approximately middle-school-aged spot. “This is like your life,” I said. “You only live your life one time. If you say, ‘tomorrow, tomorrow,’” I drew a line along the timeline, “tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow,” I drew to the end, “you will get to the end of your life and not do it! Your life will feel kind of empty. Do not say ‘tomorrow.’ Say ‘today.’” I drew an emphatic vertical line on the mark representing right now. “And then tomorrow, you can do something new, and again say, ‘today.’” Another emphatic line next to the first. “Today, today, today, today, today!” I made mark after mark, until the whole timeline was full. “Look how full this life is! You only live your life one time; make every day special.” 

I asked if they knew who said “You only live life once” to me. They didn’t. But when I told them who was Jimmy, they all said, “aaaah.” “He is a good example,” I said, “because he didn’t say ‘I will go to China, maybe, someday.’ He said, ‘I will come to China, and I will do it now.’” And because he just did it, this school is changed. Students’ lives are different. Even I am here today. 

I wrote the words “No Regrets” on the board, along with the Chinese translation, “无悔.” I told them that this is a very important idea for me. I showed them the bracelet that I wear with those words woven across it by a man on a Mexican street corner. And I told them that my bracelet and these words help me remember to do things that I will be happy about after I do them, and to not do things I would want to change later. I shared a picture and the story of my friend Olga, who I saw on the Beijing subway. I knew I should say hello, but I was shy. “Are you scared to talk to someone you do not know?” I asked, and they usually all nodded quite strongly. “Me too. But I knew I should! But I didn’t want to. But I should! But I didn’t want to. And then.. I saw my bracelet! And I knew what I should do.” We said hello, and were soon sharing our lives over coffee, dinners, and skypes, and we’re still good friends. It was hard to do, but I am so glad I did it. I have no regrets.

I asked if they have done something in their life that they are proud of. Some said that they were in a singing competition. Some said they could speak English. Some said they learned to ride a bike after being very scared. I talked about how they did something hard, or scary, or difficult, but asked if they were happy they did it, and they always were. 

So I wrote the last words on the board, “Do Hard Things.” I told them that usually, things that we do not regret are the harder things. I asked for examples, and they usually couldn’t think of any because they were thinking too “big picture” and they’re always shy. So I asked them if homework is hard. Big nods. I asked if saying “I love you” to their parents and siblings is hard. Usually big nods. “These are hard things. But when we do hard things, we will be so happy that we did it.” 

Just do it. 

You only live life once.

No Regrets.

Do Hard Things. 

What is it in your life that just needs to be done? Maybe it’s that idea you had to give away half of your clothes. Just do it. Maybe it’s that trip across the country. You only live life once. Maybe it’s sharing the gospel with your neighbor. No regrets. Maybe it’s opening your home and life to a foster child. Do hard things

Let not your life be an empty timeline, void but for the echoing of “tomorrow, tomorrow.” But shout out “today, today,” until your timeline is full to the brim of deeds done and life lived.


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