Martha Beck life lessons
Illustration: Barry Blitt
When you spend almost all your time thinking about how people can achieve their best destiny, as I do, you often trip over little life lessons that had never occurred to you. (In my case, they're usually of the blindingly obvious variety.) On the chance that you may have missed some of these enlightening tidbits of instruction, I thought I'd write down a few that have improved my own quality of life with very little effort. So, without further ado, I offer you: My 5 Best Pieces of Advice Ever.

1. A Little Pain Never Hurt Anybody

I once worked as a dishwasher in a restaurant, stacking clean plates and cups as they emerged from a spray jet of superheated water. One day an enormous metal pot came down the conveyor belt. Lifting it was like grabbing a hot stove burner. The belt was still moving, so I couldn't drop the pot without smashing dishes, floor tiles, and other people's feet. There was nothing to do but carry the pot to its shelf. As I did so, a fine new thought arose in my mind.

"Oh, well," I thought, a little pain never hurt anybody."

The incongruity of this statement made me laugh—while still holding that scalding metal. I ended up with second-degree burns on both hands, but I was oddly relaxed about it. Somehow I'd managed to accept this particular physical injury without any mental resistance or fear. In the absence of those psychological components, the overall experience was strangely stress-free.

I wish I could say I've viewed suffering this way ever since. Alas, my usual mind-set echoes the immortal words of Daffy Duck: "I can't stand pain. It hurts me." It's only when I can't avoid something moderately painful—when my back goes out or my throat gets sore or a karate buddy accidentally breaks my finger—that I remember my dishwashing epiphany. "It's only a little pain," I remind myself. "It won't hurt me."

Unfailingly, the moment I stop fearing and resisting it, the pain changes. It becomes smaller, more manageable and docile, like an enraged wolverine morphing into a fussy hamster. I just tried this at the dentist and found that having a needle pushed into my gums felt like a tiny deep-tissue massage. I genuinely enjoyed it, which is even more gratifying than it is disturbing.

The same perspective works wonders on emotional irritants: embarrassment, frustration, confusion, nervousness. I have a friend with an anxiety disorder who has learned to say, in the middle of a panic attack, "It's just anxiety, nothing to worry about." At one level she's freaking out, but she refuses to add insult to injury by thinking, "I can't stand this! It's got to stop!" She's one of the calmest people I've ever met. Variations on the theme "A little pain never hurt anyone" are so useful I'm thinking of having the phrase tattooed on my body. But I'm afraid it would hurt.

2. Sunscreen Is for Necks and Chests, Not Just Faces

Because I live in Arizona, I spend lots of time with folks who've spent decades in the desert sun. Many have exquisitely youthful faces, attached to chests that look like dehydrated crocodiles. It's not the sun damage that bothers me (though that is a health hazard). It's the difference between the patches of skin the owner finds important and those dermal areas he or she clearly ignores.

The importance of complete coverage extends far beyond cosmetic issues. We all tend to focus on things we deem important while ignoring related items. One of my clients complained that she wasn't losing weight despite following her diet perfectly at every meal. She cheated only by consuming four candy bars as snacks. Another client once said, "I'm a very honest person; I lie only when necessary." Psychologically speaking, this person had the face of a teenager and the chest of a dragon. Uneven application pervaded her life.

Sunscreen and values should be applied uniformly. If you believe in kindness, slather it on the janitor as well as the CEO. If you wouldn't excuse yourself for inflicting cruelty on another person, don't make excuses for other people who are mean to you. I remind myself daily that it's never too late to apply a protective layer of integrity to parts of my life I've ignored.


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