The Butterfly Effect

 “Wisdom comes from experience.
Experience is often a result of lack of wisdom.”

– Terry Pratchett

Contrary to popular belief, I’m twenty-six years old. (I’m really hoping for some sort of prize if I still get asked for ID a decade after turning eighteen.) I’m at That Age where everyone around me seems to be busy Being Grown Ups and doing all the things my teenage self thought I’d probably be doing now too. Friends are earning degrees, planning weddings, welcoming babies, climbing the corporate ladder, celebrating anniversaries, buying cars and houses, and all the while I’m reminded that the clock is ticking, thirty is just around the corner, and my life is far from what I thought it would be.  I think we all have ideas of what our lives will look like when we’re younger, largely based on the patterns of those around us (my parents met each other at sixteen, married at twenty and had me two years later – and for most of my high school years, I thought this was probably going to be my life course too! Prime opportunity to make use of the word “crikey”?), added to interests, goals, hopes and dreams… but how many of us actually end up living out the life we imagined we would?

By my mid-twenties, I definitely thought I’d have graduated university. I thought I’d have been married a few years, maybe with a kid on the way around this age, and I thought I’d be living in my own house. Not a big house, mind – I envisioned a little bungalow somewhere with hardwood floors, walls I’d painted turquoise and sage green, and a garden I’d somehow enjoy tending. I definitely thought I’d be able to drive, and though I was passionate about pursuing psychology, I was told I’d never find a job in it, so I imagined I’d be using my finished university degree in driving to work every day to my job as an English teacher, which would be unaffected by any sort of social anxiety, and which I would love. I imagined the only debt I had being the mortgage on my house, and I imagined planning trips every year to faraway places. I imagined having taken a year off in my early twenties to launch myself across the Atlantic and explore India or Australia, and I think I always imagined I’d be living back in Europe. I imagined getting home from work by 4:30 and having an hour or two to catch up on housework, prepare actual meals from actual recipe books (and actually enjoy cooking), and sit down at my dark cherry mahogany dining suite with my family, a glass of wine in hand and classical music floating in from the living room. I imagined spending the rest of the evening in a nicely decorated study, catching up on marking, and I imagined going to bed by 10:00 with enough time to read every night.

How frightfully grown-up my illusory mid-twenties were going to be. And how frightfully boring

I ended up moving out at eighteen with someone I was dating at the time, and when that fell apart, moved straight back to my parents’ basement for three weeks before finding the first of a series of flatmates that ended up being… let’s say… interesting characters. I moved five times in seven years, cohabitating with people who didn’t realise the expenses of living alone (and moving straight back home after a few months), didn’t own plates or cutlery (and insisted on stockpiling all mine in their bedrooms for weeks at a time in what I can only imagine were endeavours at breaking some sort of horrible Guinness record), and stole movies and CDs. People who took monthly phone and Internet cheques from me, deposited them in their bank account, had us disconnected, and then broke my bedroom door in an effort to burgle their way in to use my computer. I ended up dating a series of bad people who left my self esteem in tatters, and ended up agreeing to marry multiple times because I thought that’s just what people did – that life isn’t perfect, people aren’t perfect, and we just go through the motions. I never imagined for a second that soulmates and fairytale love existed in the real world and ended up settling for what I thought I was worth, getting myself thousands of dollars in debt, emotionally and physically abused, and picking up pieces repeatedly as a result of my own inability to believe I was worth any more. I dropped out of university two years in because I couldn’t afford to keep going and live on my own, and because my dream of teaching English didn’t line up with the anxiety disorder I’d developed (and subsequent incapability of speaking in public). I lived in a series of apartments, I went through a series of groups of friends, and I drifted for years, just floating along through life, never taking any risks, always settling for less, never truly fitting in and never truly comfortable with who I was. No direction, no assets, and definitely nowhere near the picture I’d drawn of what life was going to be. But you know what? Being where I am now, I genuinely couldn’t be more thankful that things happened the way they did.

“Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, vision cleared, ambition inspired, and success achieved.”
– Helen Keller

So I didn’t finish university – it doesn’t mean I’m not clever. I know I kept up an excellent GPA, and I know I still spend much of my free time reading and learning more about science, psychology, language and the world around me. Textbook clever, I think, is just as valid as real-world clever. So I’m still thoroughly undomesticated – I still hate cooking and would rather do six loads of laundry one Saturday afternoon a month than keep up with it weekly, but I keep things clean, and I spend my time on other, more interesting things, like writing or sci-fi nights with friends. I know the person I am today is a result of having been through complete and utter crap – and it’s not easy, but I fully admit I was the only one who allowed that crap to happen. That’s why I’m so determined today to stand up for myself, stand up for what I believe to be right, stand up for others who’re taken advantage of or can’t see their potential, and stand up for my own self worth. If life had been easy, if I hadn’t wanted for things so desperately, I would never have had any reason to push myself out of my comfort zone. If things had fallen into my lap, I could have been living the life I imagined, thoroughly sheltered from real world experience, thoroughly limited in my outlook on life, and thoroughly bored. As one of my favourite musicians once said, “darkness defines where the light is”, and I firmly believe that things are so much more meaningful, and so very much more appreciated when you’ve had to work to get them. If things had been easy, I wouldn’t be where I am today. I wouldn’t have challenged myself, I wouldn’t have attempted things I wanted to be able to do, I wouldn’t have met half the amazing people I have in my life today, and I would never have experienced soul-stirring, life-changing, epic, fairytale love I thought only existed in fiction. I wouldn’t have learned to prioritize making a difference over making money, and I wouldn’t have learned how incredibly much there is in this life to learn, to attempt, to soak up, to throw yourself into and to experience with every fibre of your being. I wouldn’t have felt the need to tell those I love just how much they mean, I would have taken things for granted, and I wouldn’t have learned the valuable lesson of acceptance. I wouldn’t have stories or battle scars, and I wouldn’t be fuelled by such insatiable passion for making the most of the time we have.

“What are you thinking?” he asks.

I know he hates it when I cry – he is completely undone by the sight of tears – so I blink hard against the sting. “I’m thinking how thankful I am for everything,” I say, “even the bad stuff. Every sleepless night, every second of being lonely, every time the car broke down, every wad of gum on my shoe, every late bill and losing lottery ticket and bruise and broken dish and piece of burnt toast.”

His voice is soft. “Why, darling?”

“Because it all led me here to you.”
– Lisa Kleypas

Life may be far from what I imagined, but I wouldn’t have traded it for anything. There’s something about catching or missing a trainbumping into someone instead of passing them by, the wrong person getting their hands on an ordinary sports almanac, or preventing the wrong medication being given that may help illustrate my point – I do think there’s something thoroughly fascinating about the whole butterfly effect. I may not have a degree, a family, a house or a car, but I reckon I’ve got life experience by the bucketload. In the past, at times, things have definitely felt confusing and downright catastrophic. But they all led me to the here and now. They made me stronger, more aware, and more passionate. More grateful and more determined. They led me to true friends, true love, and true appreciation of what’s really important in life. My timeline may be off, and I may have taken a few wrong turns. But at the end of it, it was a terribly big adventure, and from where I’m sitting now as a result of the course things took, I wouldn’t wish for things to have been different at all.

Now, somebody stop me before I embarrass myself terribly and start quoting Rascal Flatts. 🙂 How about you? How do you feel about the darker times in your past? And did your life turn out the way you’d imagined it would? 

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40 comments

  1. Yay! I am so happy that you went with this idea after all! And yes, all those steps and all those turns have gotten you to here! And here is pretty good isn’t it?

  2. Hey. Em, It’s Davian. I know you have to approve messages before they show up on your website, so I thought this would be a fun new way of messaging you. Don’t actually approve this message to show up anywhere, this is just meant for you eyes, but I thought it’d be a nice little surprise for you to find while scrolling through comments.

    Just wanted to say Hi, and I love you, and all the turns in your life brought you to me and I couldn’t be happier about it.

    Love lots, kid.

    – Davian

  3. All I can say girl is I am happy for you. Most of your posts lately and specially your pics on FB show you happier than I’ve ever known you and even though you had to go through hard stuff to get here, it seems like it’s more then worth it. Very happy for you and this was beautiful!

  4. Beautifully said. And yes, there were dark times in my past. And no, life didn’t turn out the way I’d imagined it would. The older I get, the fewer answers I have and the greater capacity to see possibility. For that, I am grateful.

    1. It’s interesting as someone who always needs to know the reasons “why”, learning that sometimes there are no answers, things just happen, and you just have to go with it. 🙂

  5. In my short time on Earth I feel that I’ve lived life-times. I have lived at 28 different addresses according to my credit report. All because I didn’t have the type of parents who would instil in me a sense of home. I had things happen in my personal life that have driven many sane men to violent crimes. But I didn’t commit them. I did, however, make MANY mistakes.

    Though I should mention that I’ve never had any expectations of what my life should be. Mostly I just want to feel like I’m home. And with all the winding paths I’ve taken (along the road less travelled) I always wind up at the same point. And that is exactly where I am supposed to be. No matter what choices I make, my feet are planted firmly under me. I suppose that means I’m either very lucky or very smart. Likely, I’m both. And to tell the truth, at the after party from the wedding, while I was waiting for a cab, Dale offered to share a cigarette and a beer with me. I said “You know I don’t smoke.” he replied “Well you should smoke this one with me.” “Yah I probably should, alright then.” I answered as I coughed and hacked, we conversed,smoked, and shared the beer and when the cab came he gave me a hug and quick peck on the cheek, and asked me if I plan to stay in Winnipeg. “I’m here to stay!” I yelled back.

    So in essence, no expectations, couple with dealing with tons of darkness, (including my own anxiety disorder), led me to where I am today.

    Home.

    (Now we just have to work on the contentment)

    1. I read a quote once, albeit a bit cheesy, that always stuck with me. That nobody can go back and make a different past, but that everyone can choose this moment right now to write a better future.

  6. Great post as always Em and can I just say I’m so happy you were led to where you are now, nobody deserves to be happier than you seem to be right now and your attitude towards everything is inspiring. Everything happens for a reason they say and I think if you respond to stuff with the right attitude, like you do, life can lead you right where you’re meant to be. Happy for you lady!

  7. Quite honestly, when I was younger, I envisioned that I would probably get married some day, but didn’t figure I would ever have kids. I didn’t really LIKE kids when I was younger. But my, my, my… how things change. While I’m still not a fan of OTHER people’s kids, I truly treasure my own two boys and couldn’t imagine my world without them. 🙂

  8. Yay, this post was perfectly timed (for me, any way!) I was having such a sad morning, and it brightened right up after reading this. What a great reminder that life doesn’t care about our plans.

    I was actually reading a book about anxiety, and it brought up the subject of Emperor Moths. I hate moths, I find them repulsive, but the story was so compelling, I had to do some research. There’s a moth in Madagascar called the Golden Emperor Moth. This one is actually quite beautiful. It can grow to be six inches long, if- and only if- it endures the painful, almost impossible task of getting out of it’s tiny cocoon. Contrarily, if the cocoon is damaged in such a way that allows the moth to escape without much struggle, it will mature to be quite small and weak. If it survives its terrifying caterpillar youth (spent mostly under rocks), it actually doesn’t even need to eat as an adult, as it gets so strong from the nutrients it gathered during its caterpillar struggles. I couldn’t agree with you more; I wouldn’t change a thing about my life, pain and all. Who would we be without our experiences?

  9. If you’d asked me 10+ years ago, when I first met Billy, if I thought he was the one I’d marry, I’d have said no. If you’d asked me where I’d be now, I certainly wouldn’t say anything that would hold true today. I have a few regrets (don’t we all?) but I genuinely am happy with where life has taken me. Sure, there are dark spots in my past, but I’ve learned from them all, and I’m one tough cookie because of them. I love looking back, because it shows me how far I’ve come.

  10. Being one of your older friends Em, I can speak from experience. You have a great attitude toward your current position. Keep positive, keep at your goals, and never give up. I know exactly what it feels like to not have reached your goal, in the time frame you expected. I did not find my true love until my early 30’s, my first good job until my mid 30’s, my first home until my late 30’s, and the start of a family until my early 40’s. These are all things I thought I would have had by your age too, and up until these things started to come together for me, I had been off and on very depressed over the whole thing. Shortly before things started to turn my way I had a change in my life perspective… keep positive, keep dreaming, keep working at my goals, but stop caring about the “if and when” these things would happen. If they happened, then great! If not, well then, I would make the best of my life and enjoy what it had to offer. That does not mean I gave up on my dreams or stopped working at them, it just meant I had accepted that things do not always happen as and when we wish. Sometimes it seems as if things just start happening when you turn around from them and just let things happen. Remembering your past post, I can’t say if it was what the Universe had in store for me, if it was my different attitude, or what it was. We are who we are for all the hard lessons we have learned in life as well as the joy we have experienced, and I am happy with the person I am. I hope you always are positive Em, and I hope that dreams come to fruition, love, and happiness are a plenty in your life to come!

  11. my life is nothing like i thought it would be when i was 13. i thought i’d be done with grad school, married and prepping for my first child. today, i’m infinitely happy with my life choices and where i am. who knows how i’ll feel tomorrow, but i’m not gonna worry about it. my life is pretty awesome for the most part

    “life is about creating yourself” and i’m doing that every single day

  12. I’ve come to the conclusion that I wouldn’t change anything in my past. Even things I’ve said, “I regret that” have completely shaped my mind and the way I think today…and I like who I am today 🙂

    I don’t feel the pressure for marriage, much. Especially when you realize how contrived that pressure is! I’ve come to accept that I’m going at Ashley’s pace, and you are going at Emily’s pace…and we are stronger for sticking to our own stride than trying to keep up with everyone else sprinting to get places.

    I’d rather stroll and let things unfold the way they are SUPPOSED to 🙂

  13. While I don’t really love all the things I have been through as some have been particularly hard to bounce back from, at the end of the day, they make me who I am. So I can’t wish the bad stuff away. I just try not to think about it and I try to focus on the here and now and how good life really is!

  14. I firmly believe that if you change one thing, you change many things. I have done things of which I am not proud, struggled with money, felt loads of career misdirection…I am still struggling to get “where I want to be”, but I wouldn’t change it. I am proud of me…and sometimes that is the greatest gift.

  15. I’m terribly worried that I don’t know where I see myself in the future. I have a blurred vision of about 15 different scenarios, all of them shifting with each passing day. I don’t know if that’s wonderful or awesome, but I’m leaning toward awesome right now. It’s sort of liberating, knowing that there’s nowhere else to go but up. I definitely didn’t know just how much life had thrown at you until now and it’s truly inspiring to see the way you’ve combatted it. It gives me so much faith for my 26-year-old self. I think I always wanted to be married and settled down, but now? That almost seems boring. Not to diminish anyone who’s married, but I have to figure myself and my crazy thought processes out first.

  16. i’ve been so happy to see how things unfolded em over the last few months and you were dealt so much difficulty it’s been great to see karma kick into gear and give you all the brilliant things you deserve. i’ve never heard you or seen you happier and i think your attitude towards life is inspiring and a great example to pay attention too. there are things in my past i haven’t liked at all and things i’d soon forget if i could but at the same time in very ‘sliding doors’ fashion, it all led me to where i am now, to my wonderful husband, friends, job…. so much of today wouldn’t be what it is if it hadn’t of happened the way it did, so looking at it like that i have to agree with you.

    great post and genuinely thrilled to see life working out for you the way it is em, you deserve it!

  17. My life is absolutely nothing like I thought it would be when I was little. I’m not even sure what that means. I just feel like when we’re little we imagine how glamorous and freeing being a grownup is.

    I’d kill to be a kid again.

  18. You are an incredibly inspiring woman Emily! And such a articulate writer! I thoroughly enjoy your posts and admire your ability to share so openly. You have a great outlook on yourself and your life. Keep that spirit, no matter where you end up!

  19. When I was 21 I had the whole rest of my life mapped out. I knew what I wanted to do, where I wanted to live, all that jazz. But then life happened and my whole plan got scrapped and balled up and thrown into the dumpster and eaten by rodents. And then I had to figure out the next steps and even though it was tough and hard and I cried a lot, it got me to hear. It got to me to a very, very happy place that’s better than I could have imagined. Mostly, I’m just glad I learned how to pick myself first and how to realize that leaving things to chance can be a very good thing.

  20. Great post, Emily! I really think my life now is the way I wanted it to be when I was younger. I just thought I’d be having kids by the time I was 22 (like my mom was when she had me) but obviously I’m going to be 27 and that has not happened yet. 🙂 I can’t complain though…I have everything else and am really happy with how my life has turned out!

  21. I think that everyone has their dark times – it’s what they choose to do with the lessons learned that really show who they are. Our dark times give us the chance to build our character, our light times give us the chance to show our character.

  22. Great post Emily. 🙂 I’ve been struggling with the same thoughts for the past while; trying to reconcile the fact that life has not remotely turned out the way I had envisioned. I often feel “behind” on life. And disappointed with how things have turned out. I’m not the person I wanted to be by 29. I struggle constantly with that. But, as of late, I’ve realized that just because things have not worked out as I wanted them to thus far, does not mean I’m a failure….and that I’ll never reach my goals. Life is a continuous growing and learning experience. Life would be boring if I stopped growing and learning; if I stopped trying to reach my ideal self. Plus, I am learning that life is much more exciting when things are less planned. I kind of like not knowing where life is taking me. Life has brought new experiences in my life (and new people in my life) that I would never have brought into life on my own. And I definitely appreciate that.

  23. You know I love ya, which is why I can say I both like this post and found it a little.. rude. Or maybe just poorly worded. Considering I did a lot of the same (crazy roomies, crazy late teens and early 20s, all that I wouldn’t redo because they led me right to where I am today), I wish you’d have thought that just because someone ends up in a life that – by their mid twenties – contains marriage, home ownership, a 9-5, cooking family meals and curling up at a decent hour to read a book, doesn’t make it “frightfully boring.”

    Everyone has their own definition of what makes them happy in life – I don’t think I’d be happy with some lives my friends have, traveling nonstop with an inability to settle down or tackle real adult responsibility, living at home with their parents, starting young families, all sorts of different situations – but I wouldn’t outright call their lives awful or a settling for less, just because it isn’t what I’d prefer for myself?

    I am glad you’re finding yourself, I’m glad you are in a constant state of growth and learning and are clearly happier than you’ve ever been, I just guess I took personal offense to reading that a life I have painstakingly carved out for myself is apparently something folks without direction settle for.

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