18: Self-Discovery

18: Self-Discovery

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Reboot Your Life


I was always looking outside myself for strength and confidence but it comes from within.


I was sitting poolside at my birthday party, dangling my feet in the water, when I suddenly felt old. All that seemed to be missing to complete my spinster persona was a houseful of cats. This was not what I had pictured for myself at thirty. In the midst of all my friends’ wedding ceremonies and baby making, I felt lost — sad, single and hopeless.

With all my fruitless soul mate searching, an entire decade of personal opportunity had passed me by. Sitting there, scouring my memory bank, I couldn’t think of a single unique or significant moment from my twenties. Aside from the typical college graduation and start of my career, I had done nothing that I considered important.

How did I allow myself to end up there? I didn’t have photos of exotic locales, tales of adventure, or anything that would indicate I was doing more than breathing and occupying space. That moment served as my epiphany, and I recognized that my decade-long pity party must come to a screeching halt. Right there, in the midst of my “celebration,” I made a decision to accept my life as it was and start living it from that point forward.

I realized I should have spent far more time building my experience catalog and far less time scouring Austin, Texas for Mr. Right. Only to be sorely disappointed, I might add, when he didn’t materialize. Waiting around for what I thought would make me happy only made me miserable, and if my twenties could evaporate so quickly, I reasoned it wouldn’t be long until I was a blue-haired old lady sitting on my sofa lamenting about that whole bunch of nothing I did in my youth.

When I finally quit searching for the man of my dreams, I took my first step toward self-discovery. I purchased a guitar and learned to play it. It wasn’t long until I’d written some songs, and before I knew it, I’d stepped further out of my comfort zone and bought that first home I’d convinced myself had to be a joint purchase.

With these two notches in my belt, I went on to audition for Nashville Star. I traveled by railroad. I walked sixty miles for breast cancer, stood atop the Empire State Building, mastered roller coasters, witnessed a whale breaching in the bay, landed in a helicopter on a glacier, deep-sea fished, grew my own vegetables, ran a half marathon, dog mushed, delivered a speech in my community, and played sand volleyball on a league. I met my childhood hero, Dolly Parton. I zip-lined in a rain forest. I donated my hair to cancer patients.

When I let go of what I thought I was supposed to become — a wife and mother — and embraced what I actually was — a strong single woman — I discovered my value. With every activity I attempted, my confidence soared until I had a firm grip on who I was and what I could do. Today, I’m a highly driven, creative and adventurous person, because I made a conscious decision to scare myself as much as possible.

And, sure, I had my doubts from time to time. I wasn’t positive I could actually play volleyball, for example, but when game day finally arrived, I forced myself to attend. It was awkward since I hadn’t even seen the courts since junior high, but there I was in the midst of total strangers, playing my heart out. It turned out that I wasn’t half bad. A mouthful of sand here and there, but some solid passes and serves, too.

It was horrifying to climb a forty-foot pole before jumping off a platform and sailing 200 feet above a canyon. But I soldiered through the nausea, and afterwards, I felt as though I could master any challenge. At last I was strong, single, and hopeful!

Those victories of my thirties built the resilient woman of my forties. My newfound confidence came in handy when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I refused to let my diagnosis boss me around. Two years later, I’m still breathing and occupying space, but now, unlike that first forgotten decade, it’s with a purpose. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that had I continued on the former stagnant path of my twenties, I would not have possessed the confidence or determination to face that breast cancer challenge.

Today, as a middle school English teacher, I share the lessons I’ve learned with my classes in hopes of inspiring them to be more. While it’s obviously my educational responsibility to teach them how to be better readers and writers, it’s also my personal responsibility to lead them toward their own paths of self-discovery. As recently as last week, I suggested that they invest in a small journal, not to write diary entries, but to record the special events and activities of their lives. I wish I’d started seeking growth opportunities earlier, but I remind myself that it’s better to have lost ten years than twenty or thirty.

And by the way, while I was out living life, Mr. Right found his way to me.

~Val Jones

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