My track record on resolutions is atrocious. A new year appears and my resolve is strong. Typically, it lasts all of five minutes. So why do I persist? Because often there’s wisdom that sits beneath a resolution, no matter how trite. I look back on resolutions past and the longings they name are still worthy.
A few years back Jason Zweig, a columnist with the Wall Street Journal, provided a list of resolutions worth considering. Here are some of them:
- Listen to what someone else is saying without hearing what you already think. It’s one of the hardest challenges for the human mind.
- Say “I don’t know” at least 10 times a day. That will disqualify you for a career in politics but make you a better person.
- Learn something interesting every day; learn something surprising every week; learn something shocking every month.
- Be more judgmental about ideas and less judgmental about people.
- Get outside more — a lot more.
- Don’t laugh at things you don’t understand. Take the time and trouble to understand them first. Most likely, you will find that once you understand them, they either become even funnier than you thought in the first place, or not funny in the least.
- Own your mistakes; lend your successes. They will come back, with interest.
- Get home 15 minutes earlier. It will make you 15 minutes more efficient the next day.
- Call your mum.
- Forget about getting better at what’s easy for you. Get better at what’s hard for you.
- If you think you’re the smartest person in the room, you must not have talked to everybody in the room yet.
- Stop walking with your phone in your hand all the time. Look up and see how strange and beautiful the world is.
- Never try to get other people to change their minds without first trying to understand why they think the way they do. Never do that without being open to the possibility that the mind that might need to change the most could be your own.
- Show, don’t tell.
- Teach, don’t preach.
- Befriend someone at least 20 years younger than you, and someone at least 20 years older than you. Each of you will make the other smarter and better.
- Get better at accepting compliments; despite all you know (and all they don’t know) about how the sausage was made, people still have a right to like what you did. And you have an obligation to thank them.
- Tweet less; read more.
- Talk less; listen more.
- Say more: Use fewer words.
I’m a keeper of journals. For as long as I can recall I have written my way through life. In copious notebooks I’ve documented and reflected on what’s been a mostly unremarkable story. Regardless, the earliest of these are drenched with angst. As I scan them now, I cringe. They read like an endless and urgent ‘quest’ for improvement or for reality different to the one I knew.
My religious upbringing did not help. The journey to Christian devotion — a quest of the most noble kind — was fueled by a dim view of the human heart and of the world in which we’re ‘entrapped’. The narrow road out and toward God was paved with words of obligation: repent, give up, let go, deny, quench, resist. It was an urgent business. Honestly, I felt more failure than progress as I trudged along, but the drive to ‘press on’ remained.
With the benefit of age, I wish now I could go back to that ernest young man and others like him. While he sits hunched over his journal I would stand behind him, my hands on his shoulders, and speak words of peace. “Go easy,” I would say, “this world is good and precious, and so are you.”
It is the psalmist who affirms all creation as filled with the beauty and majesty of God and St Paul who marvels at that all-encompassing love that leaves no peak or crevice of this life untouched. The Franciscan Richard Rohr describes true religion as “always a deep intuition that we are already participating in something very good, in spite of our best efforts to deny it or avoid it.” Indeed, this world declared ‘good’ and ‘very good’ in the creation story continues to be so. The great privilege of the Christian faith is not that we are on a journey toward God, but that we are in God and the life of God is in us.
Yes, I am still journaling and still questing. I still seek meaning in what I do. I still aspire to goodness in who I am and justice for those around me. But the urgency of it and the self-criticism, they are less. Rather than being driven by a rejection of the world’s darkness and a desire for improvement in myself, I find myself inspired by the beauty of all that’s around and even within me. Today there is less drive for personal progress and more longing for the grandeur, kindness and grace that fills this world of ours.
‘Gentleness is everywhere in daily life, a sign that faith rules through ordinary things: through cooking and small talk, through storytelling, making love, fishing, tending animals and sweet corn and flowers, through sports, music and books, raising kids — all the places where the gravy soaks in and grace shines through.’
Garrison Keillor, We are Still Married: Stories and Letters, Viking Books, 1989.
We are a fickle lot. Whatever language we give it — whether religious or otherwise — most of us know that we are a bundle of contradictions. At one moment we shine; we aspire to virtue and change and beauty. At another we fall back into self-interest and ‘whatever’.
As a person of Christian faith, it’s this internal back-and-forth that I struggle to name. This little prayer said it for me this morning. There’s something here about naming what is while reaching for the courage and grace to be different.
Most loving God,
we admit to you and to each other
that we are beings in whom shame and glory
are strangely mixed.
We are creatures of wisdom and folly,
trust and anxiety, success and failure,
truth and deceit, love and apathy.
We need you, yet we evade you —
to believe, yet we doubt,
to praise, yet we dishonour,
to love, yet we resent.
God of the new creation and our God,
we long to be made whole
in thought, word, and deed.
We seek of you today the gifts of Jesus:
and the courage to be
the sisters and brothers of Christ.
Bruce Prewer, Australian Prayers, Lutheran Publishing House, 1983, 84.
I conducted a funeral last week. It was for a man I cherished as a friend and wise elder. I may have been his pastor this last decade, but he enlarged my spirit far more than I ever nurtured his. Under the current restrictions, the gathering was small: just ten members of his family and me. Truth be told, those who mourned his death could have filled an auditorium. Instead, we were just a few.
My friend was a man of the church. He had given 60+ years of devoted service to Collins Street. But he was more than the church. He was a man of family, of work in local and state government and of civic duty. He provided leadership to community and sporting organisations throughout his life. While he possessed a faith — a very genuine faith — he was not a pious man. In the words of his wife, there was no “pie in the sky” for which he hungered. For him the way of Christ was a way to live, and this he did with genuine delight and an integrity hard to match.
One of the privileges of leading funerals is the routine recognition it provides that death is part of life’s story. I cannot look away. Life and death go hand in hand. Benedict of Nursia (AD 480-547), the founder of a spiritual community that survives to the present day, instructed his monks to “keep death daily before your eyes.” This was not a morbid exhortation, rather an encouragement to cherish life from beginning to end as the extraordinary and eternal gift that it is.
The contemporary Benedictine David Steindl-Rast underlines this truth:
“The finality of death is meant to challenge us to decision, the decision to be fully present here now, and so begin eternal life. For eternity rightly understood is not the perpetuation of time, on and on, but rather the overcoming of time by the now that does not pass away.”
Today my friend is gone from us and we grieve. But the ‘now’ of his life lives on in a world that is richer for his presence. For me the language of eternity is a language of mystery: what lies beyond is beyond my knowing. What I do know, however, is that eternity begins each and every day and its beauty is ours to grasp in the smallest details of our lives. This my friend did with a style all his own and I’ll never forget him for it.