We school folks tend not to view the changing of the calendar as the start of anything particularly noteworthy. We save our countdowns for evenings in June, and September 6 or thereabouts is our New Year’s Day, a day brimming with promise, opportunity and resolutions to do things if not better, certainly differently. Folks in the real world, however, seem to take this changing of the calendar year rather seriously. They cling to a number change because, unlike us, they have few authentic beginnings and endings, both of which, I am convinced, can be meaningful opportunities for reflection, reinvention, and, of course, resolution. So in that spirit, I thought I would tell you two stories that book-ended one winter break of mine from a few years back.
First, my car accident. I was back in my hometown in eastern Connecticut, a rural outpost with more cows than people, dropping my son off at a friend’s house located three hard miles down a dirt road in the woods. A blizzard had come through a couple of days before, so the road, though plowed, was still slick. Unexpectedly, I came to a ninety degree turn in the road, and though I was only driving about 25, I should have been driving no more than 10. But, hey, I was in a hurry. We were trying to see as many people in as little time as possible and people in that town live about 25 minutes away from one another. Anyway, I chose to turn left but my car had another idea, the proverbial path of least resistance: the straight line. Now, Ms. Swanbeck has likely taught you that a line goes on forever, but this particular straight line definitely defied that convention, ending rather abruptly when it met several large trees.
Anyway, before you express concern about me, my health, my well-being (You are doing that, right?) please know that I was in no way hurt. The same could not be said for my vehicle, which collapsed like an accordion. This being the country, I got spotty cell service, it was getting dark and cold, there was not a house for a mile, and I thought I was seeing animals darting among the trees. None of these conditions, however, was my primary fear at the moment; my primary fear was calling my wife. So instead, I called my friend, (the school chaplain) who drove out and invited me into the passenger seat to warm up and wait for a tow truck. It was at that moment that I made my New Year’s resolution. In my hour-long confession to my chaplain friend, I poured out my soul about how I was always in a hurry in life, never took the time to really pay attention to the things that matter, did not actively listen to people, or reflect on my life. Essentially, I was always concerned with making good time, whatever the endeavor. If, last month, I made it from Falmouth to Philly in five hours and thirty-seven minutes, this month, I aimed to make it in five-thirty-six. So in those cold New England woods, I vowed that the coming year would be different. I was going to slow down, do things right, and focus on what really mattered.
However, just a few days later, things shifted radically thanks to a much less, shall we say, impactful occurrence. I was walking to school reviewing the list of things I had to do on opening day, the first of which was to enter the building. This process, I reflected, was too often slowed down by the cumbersome task of removing my ID from my pocket and swiping it. What if, I thought, I placed the ID in my belt pack where I kept my Blackberry? (Yes, some of us used Blackberries then and when we did, we kept them in belt packs.) Could wearing my cell phone on my belt serve a second purpose (the first being it just looks cool)? Because of my height, I wagered that the card would line up perfectly with the scanner doo-dad, and I could just wiggle my hips a bit and walk right in, a brilliant plan that would certainly save time and result in my being able to check other things off my list more quickly in my never ending quest to process work. Sure enough, I walked through, shimmied a bit, the door opened, and I had once again made good time. It was not until I sat down at my desk that I remembered the resolution I had made only the week before, which seemed so vitally important at the time.
So, is the moral of this story, “New Year’s resolutions are a stupid waste of time”? Yes and no. Yes, it is really difficulty to change who you are, and the prospects of doing so are still more remote if you pin them to a change in the calendar year. But does that mean my determination to slow down, be a safer driver, take time to listen, and focus on what’s really important was misguided? I have four things to say about that: first, the act of trying matters. If we constantly remind ourselves of how we’d like to change and make genuine efforts at self-improvement, good things happen. Second, other people can help us; tell people what you are working on and ask for their support, and good things will happen. Third, know that you will often fall short of your expectations and that doing so is no excuse for lowering your expectations of yourself. Finally, embrace the old adage, “To know thyself is divine.” That is, make peace with who you are… your nature, your temperament, and your faults. We spend a lot of time urging you to accept others for who they are, but perhaps not enough time urging you to accept, even to love yourself for who you are. The Japanese have a phrase for the notion of welcoming life’s imperfections and accepting ourselves for who we are. They call it wabi sabi. As for me, I will always be in a hurry, I will always be a little anxious, a little on edge, I will lose my keys, I will look for a pencil when one is already in my hand, I will launder my wallet; it’s my nature, my temperament, who I am, but it does not define me; like you, I have a few good qualities that I hope will offset it and with your help, I will keep working on it so that my flaw does not become my tragic flaw, as it could have on a dark, cold December night in the New England woods.
Good luck to all of you as you strive to enact your own resolutions throughout this new year.