7 Guideposts for 2018

This piece is meant as a companion to my earlier Resolve posting, in which I borrowed an image from the eminent Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken that might serve us in our resolution-making; e.g., that we might see resolutions as broader than self-improvement tasks, and more as existential way-chosings.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both

Frost’s traveler confronts his finitude of being but “one traveler” and is beset with angst over which path to take. In the end, he ventures down “the one less traveled by”—”Because it was grassy and wanted wear.” This, wrote Frost, “has made all the difference.”

In my previous piece, I recommended a varietal of resolution rooted in a collective, transformational and qualitative soil; resolutions rooted in our yearnings for what this world needs most and our own audacity to, in Gandhi’s phrasing,

Be the change that you wish to see in the world.

Don’t we all pine for newness in 2018? Haven’t we been drawn onto some regrettable paths? I know I have.

Would you allow me to describe some comparative traits of paths diverging before us? And might I recommend one trait-set as preferable? (I’m going to do so regardless of what you’re thinking right now, but I thought it would be polite to ask.)

What if we resolved certain paths over others? And what if we resolved to find our ways onto paths that conformed to those traits we want to be true of ourselves and our world?

Here are 7 pathway choices I’ve been contemplating. Maybe 2 or 3 will serve you in your own orienteering this year. Maybe there will be some practical areas where you might journey in these ways.

1 | CONSTRUCTIVE OVER DESTRUCTIVE

This might seem obnoxiously obvious, but that’s exactly the point! Civility has become a lost art in our civilization, where we firebomb one another on social media, wear brass knuckles for jewelry and attack anonymously like saboteurs! Most of the other items on this list will expand on this, but (for the love!) can we resolve to quit acting like bulls in china shops; sharks in a feeding frenzy? Here’s hoping!

The ancient Greek physician Hippocrates of Kos coined the timeless adage “do no harm”. Still wise. And not just for doctors. Bury your hatchets and hand grenades; beat your swords into plowshares! If the path before you is littered with twisted metal and strewn with body parts, by all means divert! Or have we lost our aversion to bloodthirst? Rediscover it!

There is an amusing annotation atop many Psalms (e.g. Psalm 59): “To the tune of ‘Do Not Destroy.’” It sounds like a bit of a downer tune, but maybe, just maybe, there’s something there for us. Can we resolve that among the many ways we will interact with our world this year, our ways might be “to the tune of ‘Do Not Destroy’”?

You get what I mean.

2 | RELATIONSHIPS OVER RIGHTNESS

Now if we’re to learn the tune of “Do Not Destroy” or internalize Hippocrates’ oath, we must first re-learn the value of relationship. (Another lost art!) Step away from the detonator. Take your finger off that send button. Save that email or message or tweet to drafts, and sleep on it—maybe for multiple nights. Do you know how innumerable are the unsent letters of great men and women that found permanent homes in bureaus and desk drawers?  Whatever that unseemly thought, you needn’t release its fury into the wide world. Ugly attitudes might ride for a time in your vehicle, but pity the one who lets them drive!

You know not to get an impulsive tattoo. Don’t impulsively and indelibly tattoo your relationships either. Though you might be very right about certain issues, nevertheless you will be very wrong to needlessly harm relationships in the name of your rightness. (You might also be wrong, you know? Maybe very wrong! Probably not. But maybe!)

Relationships exceed the importance we tend to attribute to them. In all your dealings, resolve to honor relationship more highly than you might be inclined.

This doesn’t mean being a doormat. In fact, you must value relationships through honesty, firmness, tough love and candor. But there’s a line, and its name is carefulness. Are you fighting to win the day or win the relationship? Would you put an important relationship on the alter of your morbid need to be right; to come out on top? Believe me, there are better paths in want of wear.

Want an example of how not to do this? How about this regrettable regret for a 50th Anniversary celebration?

There’s a term for shenanigans like this: “playing yourself.” Whether it finds its way onto social media or not, this is a regrettable path indeed. “So Sorry!” about sums it up. How mean-spirited and petty (we’ll get to that one). Rightness can be so wrong. Relationships, however?

3 | PEOPLE OVER OPINIONS

Valuing relationships is actually a subset of valuing humans; an expansive category. I wrote about this in my piece on politics, but I know I’m not alone in being shocked how human life can be handled as nothing more than a data point either supporting or threatening ones stance on thus-and-such. It’s obscene.

When someone dies or suffers or falters, we scramble to fit it into our own ideological case. “See! If they’d just stop killing each other!” or “That’s why our healthcare system is so messed up!” or “What do they expect when they act that way!”

We do this with natural disasters, terrorism, disease, war, senseless losses of any and all types! We do this domestic and abroad. We leap-frog grief and ramp up our respective diatribes. My God, what have we all allowed ourselves to become?

Resolve to never miss the human element. Resolve to call attention to it. Resolve to not let yourself be brainwashed otherwise: not by politicians, nor your peer group, nor by the powerful, nor news and media, nor even your theology! Hasn’t 2017 taught us something about this smell test?

If it seems dehumanizing, it probably is. If life or lives are lost, we must first be sobered. Lets retrain ourselves to see the world this way.

John Donne had it right:

Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.

When Moses turned aside to see the Burning Bush, he was instructed to take off his shoes, “for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”

We are told again and again in Scripture that every human is made in God’s image—no exceptions! Our interactions with humans are, therefore, always holy ground. As holy as it gets! To damage this through violence, neglect or callous indifference is to disgrace their Maker.

So lets learn how and when to take off our shoes, shall we? (Hint: it’s more often than you think.)

4 | UNDERSTANDING OVER ENTRENCHEMENT

A byproduct of what I’ve been saying is that we must place greater value on understanding than entrenchment. How long have you lived on the earth? How varied and comprehensive are your experiences? Isn’t it arrogant to think you have nothing to learn from those who have lived entirely different lives?

The human soul atrophies when it ceases to absorb and integrate new information. It also atrophies when it can no longer extend itself empathetically toward another.

Let’s resolve to be people who grow and evolve and benefit from the histories and perspectives of others, especially those unlike us. It will do you so good in 2018 to have your narrative upended here and there! Maybe you’ll upend someone else’s—kindly! (An aside, you will probably upend the perceptions of others most by being this kind of person; so accustomed we’ve all become to the recalcitrance of all we encounter.)

Be curious. Be playful. Admit ignorance. Get recommendations and council. Expose yourself to new voices. By doing so, you yourself will grow, and you will grow out into the world around you like the living organism you are!

Do you know how many people I talk with on a daily basis who are utterly incapable of asking a question? It’s astounding! It’s no wonder our world is in such bad shape.

Abraham Lincoln once said of an irritating associate,

I don’t like that man.
I must get to know him better.

5 | LISTENING OVER TALKING

Part of the previous point is that we must re-learn listening and unlearn babble (Babel?). Too many of us talk at others. It is an iteration of conversation requiring only one sentient being! (That is to say, it’s just “versation”; devoid of any with-ness!)

Scripture chides us to be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry. You do realize these ideas are all interrelated, don’t you? There may be no more humanitarian behavior than listening: strengthening and building relationship, placing value on the individual, fostering understanding, causing us to mature in an ongoing way. But most of us suck at it. Can we admit that? So we talk at those around us. There’s no intimacy or connection happening. Then we wonder why were so angry. As my friend once wrote, “Anger is dealing with your hurt alone.” Maybe we all so angry because we’re all so lonely. Resolve to be a connection-maker through engaged listening.

The 19th century Scottish author and pastor,  Ian Maclaren, offers us an important reminder.

Let us be kind to one another,
for most of us are fighting a hard battle.

Isn’t that true? How kind it is when we acquaint ourselves with the battles of others through our listening! Our world needs more listeners badly. The truest way to disseminate this is by embodying listening ourselves.

There was this one time when Jesus’ parents accidentally left him in Jerusalem. (Like Home Alone, no kidding!). When they found him, he was in the Temple astounding the elders with his wisdom. How was he doing this? He was “sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.”

Listening and asking. What a novel idea.

6 | BIGNESS OVER PETTINESS

The author Robert Anton Wilson once quipped,

You are precisely as big as what you love
and precisely as small as what you allow to annoy you.

There are certainly scores of things over which we would be justified in expressing outrage, but how minute have the items on that list become for you?

What I appreciate about Wilson’s remark is that it offers us a choice. What will you love? What will you allow to annoy you? Don’t we often act as though we’ve no agency in the matter?

I live in Chicago, and I feel like my city can push all my buttons every day! If someone isn’t hassling me for no good reason, the city is raising my taxes or giving me a ticket. I’ve go to be careful, or my demeanor can mutate into that of Ebenezer Scrooge!

Ironically, the meaning of Ebenezer is “stone of help”. It was the prophet Samuel’s name for a memorial stone commemorating God’s deliverance of his people from great difficulty. He said, “thus far the Lord has helped us.”

As the hymnodist Robert Robinson penned,

Here I raise my Ebenezer,
Hither by Thy help I’ve come;
And I hope, by Thy good pleasure,
Safely to arrive at home.

When was the last time you raised your Ebenezer, Ebenezer? Big people maintain perspective. Small people don’t. Small people miss the forest for the trees. Small people are always keeping score. Stop being a small person. Resolve to be bigger: not dying on every hill, but giving your life for who and what you love!

You can feel when this contraction is taking place. Be honest with yourself, and get back to being big. (Side note, big people don’t always go around declaring themselves to be big. If you’re doing that mentally or verbally, you’re doing it wrong. Sorry.)

7 | PATIENCE OVER HASTE

It’s been said that haste makes waste, and it is true. Not only does it make waste of resources like time and money, but of people and relationships, not to mention our dignity and dreams. Haste values immediate gratification over the long-term and the lasting. Patience takes a deep breath and calculates the costs. Patience suffers temporary loss (even, especially of pride) for the sake of priceless gains. Patience deliberates. Haste blunders. Fools rush in.

Patience is neither passive nor pusillanimous but steadfast and stalwart. Patience stays the course without settling for cheap and easy substitutes. Patience refuses to compromise legacy for quick relief; will not sell its birthright for a bowl of soup.

Haste is incorrigibly reckless and incomprehensibly feckless—airing grievance shamelessly, retaliating disproportionately. It is the tragicomic thoroughfare through the wasteland of our age.

If haste makes waste, then what does patience make? Shalom, that tantalizing Hebrew concept of wholeness, healing, beauty, harmony and peace.

Patience is that preservational habit that might, itself, play midwife to all the virtuous traits celebrated above; that green and grassy path wanting wear.

It is the deliberateness Frost meant to caricature but inadvertently eulogized.

…long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Patience is that quality, which, with clear eyed appraisal, insists on profitable pathways.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Here’s to better pathways for many in 2018. Know for certain they are seldom discovered nor sustained on accident.

May your resolutions reflect what you know to be lacking in this wonderful world, but also in your wonderful self, guided by what Abraham Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.”

In fact, Lincoln’s pleading sentiments from his own fractious days might offer us an apt ending—even as he would concluded his own first inaugural address with the following words:

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.
Amen.

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