We Americans love to upgrade ourselves—or at least give improvement a lick and a promise as we turn the page on a given milestone. Jonathan Edwards famously wrote out 70 resolutions (yes, 70!); one assumes North America’s greatest thinker and theologian also sought to live each of them out. Somewhat later, Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography included a systematic approach to better himself in thirteen areas. Of those categories I only recall order and humility among his list of virtues, the former difficult to master because of that founding father’s keen memory, the latter troublesome to inculcate because, well, all of us wrestle with thinking too highly of ourselves … especially after self-consciously commencing a regimen of self-help!
What was taken more seriously in earlier days of the Republic has been eclipsed of late by a persistent gnawing cynicism: nothing in politics, the economy and family dynamics changes; ergo, no one individually can change. Most so-called resolutions are but gauzy short-lived stabs towards a given result description … but without consistent effort to achieve (much less sustain) the stated desire over time.
In marked contrast, I believe in the power of our wills, both to resolve and to declare before others what our course of action shall be. Classic example: My uncle was a lifelong smoker. Upon returning from my first trip to China in 1986, where packs of Camels were simple and desirable gifts, I went to his house to give him the cigarettes I had left over. No need; in my absence, he had decided to quit his decades’ habit of smoking. To this very day he remains a non-smoker. He had resolved to end his unhealthy practice. Full stop. He had exercised his will first and foremost. End of story.
So, as 2012 winds down and all of 2013’s futurity remains behind the veil, I wish to reintroduce the notion of New Year’s Resolutions, but with teeth. Worked at vigorously, each determination adds to the one previous (and the one which follows) for a cumulative, qualitative difference in the way we relate to others (1-4), create a better self (5-8) and promote improved action (9-12). We might even become more spiritual as a result! (13)
Was it not Gandhi who said he wanted to be the change he wished in the world? We cannot control others, free moral agents as they are, but we can undertake a path which invite the days, weeks and months of 2013 to become an adventure for us.
So, let’s go!
In 2013 I resolve to …
1. Listen carefully. Upon moving to Atlanta, I met Jennifer. She enjoyed going to parties; I didn’t. She was good at small talk; I wanted to thrash out the deep verities of existential existence. “People love to talk about themselves,” said Jennifer. “Ask questions and others will think you’re the best conversationalist in the world.” Her breezy observation has served me well. Ignore the wall of words people say and seek out, hear their ideas. Discern the unspoken. Truly, we honor people when we apply the late Stephen Covey’s Habit 5: “seek first to understand, then to be understood.”
2. Speak forthrightly. Alan Simpson, of Simpson-Bowles deficit-reduction renown (NCFRR to be exact), recently said in a UNC-Charlotte forum, in America now “One of us weighs as much as two others.” Moments earlier Erskine Bowles spoke frankly about the number one reason for deficits, health care costs. And a major issue driving up those health care costs, noted Simpson in his follow-up, is obesity. It is time we release ourselves from the shackles of PC talk, a form of censorship which has prevented us from having honest discourse over a wide range of topics. Straightforward speech keeps us out of the rapids of cynicism, as well as the shoals of in-your-face disrespect—not to mention the falsely calm pools of happy talk.
3. Unplug often. I took a job under a new boss years ago and stopped dating a woman recently for essentially the same reason—how they handled electronic devices. While interviewing, I heard Randy’s BlackBerry buzz repeatedly, but he remained focused on me as the interviewee. While dating, Arlene was glued to her iPhone (instead of me!)—during dinner, over drinks, watching TV, in the car, on a walk, shopping, … you name it. Good grief, friends, the novelty of our hand-held thingies is so over. Let’s acknowledge a national habit in need of breaking: compulsive, self-absorbed addiction to a social media tidal wave. We routinely disregard the person right in front of us in real time!
4. Forgive thoroughly. Paul Johnson, in the epilogue of his Penguin biography of Churchill, noted the great man “wasted an extraordinarily small amount of his time and emotional energy on the meannesses of life…. There is nothing more draining and exhausting than hatred” (164-65). We may lament this reality of clung-to animosities when observing world events … and yet succumb to it in our own interpersonal interactions with little alarm. I think of my friend Wendy, who though divorced against her will—nevertheless—continues to cook her ex-husband’s favorite foods for him from time to time and delivers them to what used to be their shared home. Someone once said, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”
5. Read widely. Think what you will about George W, he carved out time in his (busy!) presidential schedule to read, on average, a book a week. Reading leads to opened up routes for connecting. This past year found one leader perusing pages of theology, biography, a new novel, classic fiction, light essays, a treatise on marriage, an award-winning business book, technology, German poetry, dealing with middle age, emotional intimacy, leadership, a Greek play, history, personal devotion, mentoring, masculinity, scientific essays, Indian short stories and ethics. Such a range of topics enables her to engage a wide variety of people, both professionally and socially.
6. Give generously. Current market conditions do not exempt us from giving. Nor is global economic malaise an excuse to keep from moving forward. My alma mater surpassed its $600M capital campaign earlier in the year; we’re now on the road to raising $1B. Just last week, I joined 100 or so adults to celebrate the second anniversary of Charlotte’s new museum of modern art. Though most of us were strangers previously, we gathered together because the Bechtler family released from their Swiss home a trove of mid-century Modernism into the care of our North Carolina community. What a seed gift! (Briefly: One dare not forget spending time may be equally rewarding as donating monies or goods.)
7. Rest consistently. No wonder zombies make sense to our culture! Most of us walk about with too little nightly sleep. Every study reiterates this trend of sleeping less, working more. Add to the weekly grind weekend schedules that indicate precious little real Sabbath-keeping is taking place in the broader culture. Even one, two weeks of vacation which make Chevy Chase’s Griswold family look relatively normal and you get my call to surcease: daily, weekly, yearly. Further, the healthy practice of extending a seventh year sabbatical fits here; the concept has been proven helpful beyond the halls of academia in business, the pastorate and public service life.
8. Simplify intentionally. I had never seen Noel happier. She really did glow when I ran into her at the grocery store. “Aren’t you supposed to be in Shanghai?” I asked. “Husband’s already there; the kids and I will join him in a few weeks.” Here’s what stunned me: “We sold the house—furniture and all.” Just months before I had been in their lovely home; one noted its size, elegance … and simplicity. How freed she and her brood were from house, furnishings, stuff! Piles of paper, boxes of memories, garages full of once-in-a-lifetime-useful ephemera—we all could use a little Noel purge.
9. Labor elegantly. Steve Jobs and his rabid team created beautiful devices. In our high-tech era he pushed us forward, to be sure, but also simultaneously drew us back to an Old World age of pride in craftsmanship. Apple is now its own veritable stock market because of a succession of attractive products that are more than their utility. There is something compelling about going beyond the bare minimum … the obvious and easy solution … into a realm of finesse. Whether manifested in clear, descriptive language; or seen in stripping away a concept to its essence or experienced in perfect presentation … there is a force of beauty which draws others into work well-done: a concise essay, an elegant skyscraper or a cupcake array at your niece’s wedding.
10. Serve humbly. A major disposition of transformational leadership is competent humility. We saw it in Washington, in Lee, in John Paul II. A great person spoils his white suit of accomplishment with the mustard stain of arrogance. Even some in lower standing seem to think their pride is justified. I can’t abide to hear a server or cashier mumble “Uhh huhhh,” as if responding with an audible “Yes, sir” were somehow demeaning. So wherever we are on the social scale, an focus on others never hurts; such an approach can shift even mundane, routine transactions into transformational conversations, what the Oriental cultures are profoundly sensitive to: “giving face.”
11. Risk boldly. One close friend experienced a major trauma five and a half years ago. One of the biggest surprises to some observing her slow recovery over time has been an increase in risk-taking. Rather than pulling into a shell, she repeatedly exposes herself to a potential big “Yes” here or there. She pursued new opportunities despite often encountered limitations and obstacles more than once. At one point the dynamic at play in her approach hit me: If the most anyone can do against me is say “No,” what is holding me back from new opportunities but fear of people or fear of failure? By further extension: What move, connection, relationship is out there just waiting for you to venture a decisive step? Take a chance in 2013 … a big one … toward an unknown with VAST POTENTIAL written all over it.
12. Persevere joyfully. If you reflect upon 2012 as the best year of your life, more power to you. I think of Aaron who graduated from a liberal arts school, moved to a new city, got a great job and is lovin’ life something fierce. To the Aarons of the world, Woo hoo! At the same time, Steely Dan’s lament remains true, “I, I want a name when I lose.” Pushing through loss is a character quality which serves us admirably, for we all encounter woe as well as weal. Let this beckoning year be a time when pain is trumped by joy and hanging in there—regardless of political circumstance, internal illness or external resistance. Out of such personal brokenness comes compassion for others. Fellow political prisoners watched Mandela. Folk unhappy with their life are likewise observing how you respond to difficulties.
Finally, 13. Worship sincerely. Our ultimate commitments center all we are and do. Far from abandoning identification with the One True God in this difficult era, why not have at it? Our day demands intensity, not indifference. The writer, for one, is firmly committed to historic Christianity. You may be surprised to learn that the Christ, speaking early in St. John’s Gospel, likens half-hearted spiritual exercise to that coffee mug you misplaced … then discovered mid-morning … now at room temperature. The tepid drink is brought to the lips of the Divine … and spewed out of his mouth! Just as we want hot coffee, God desires hot personal engagement. Make 2013 a year of intense spiritual searching.
So there you have my baker’s dozen remedies for a mediocre existence: four real resolutions focused on relating to others (1-4), the next four radical commitments centered on making a better self (5-8), four more stark affirmations geared toward improved action (9-12) and the final bold determination an overarching commitment centering all the other efforts (13).
We end where we began. Most supposed self-improvement goals have short shelf lives because they are vague wishes instead of firm, considered decisions of the will. Franklin took his list of virtues and focused on one a week. Because 52 weeks divided the year, he was able to zero in on a given area four times, once each season. I like that approach. Take the above thirteen suggestions seriously and a year from now you’ll thank me. Keep integrating them into your life and a decade from now your friends, family and firms will thank you.