“There are years that ask questions and years that answer.”
– Zora Neale Hurston
Speaking of Beautiful Questions, New Year’s Day has to be one of my favorite “beautiful question” kind-of-days. The start of a new year brings the opportunity for a fresh start, a time to regroup, set our intentions for the upcoming year. Since I’m also a procrastinator by nature, I’ll note that it’s perfectly ok to also leverage Chinese New Year, birthdays, anniversaries, or any other milestone to do this. But New Year’s Day is a freebie. The world has slowed down, so why not seize the moment for yourself to do the same?
A few years ago, I stumbled across All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church in Washington, DC. The congregation was founded in 1821 by notables such as John Quincy Adams and John C. Calhoun, among others. As someone generally skeptical of organized religion, I found comforting the UU principles of affirming and promoting the “inherent worth and dignity of every human being,” and “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” Those are generally things I can get behind, so I tempered my skepticism and began to explore.
In January 2008, Reverend Rob Hardies gave a sermon about the New Year’s practices of our 19th century Unitarian ancestors such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, who used the occasion to provoke his congregants with the question, “Are you living or are you merely growing old?”
Reverend Hardies explained:
“[O]ur 19th Century Unitarian ancestors took the New Year very seriously as a milestone of the spiritual life… They believed they’d been put on earth for a purpose; they saw their life journey as the path toward achieving that purpose. If life was a journey for our ancestors, then New Year’s represented a kind of milestone on that journey, a cairn, if you will… A cairn is a little pile of stones that we sometimes see along the trail — or maybe a marker of some sort — that marks a turning point, or a crossroads in the trail, a decision point…That’s what New Year’s was for our ancestors, a kind of milestone, a reckoning point on life’s journey….
“…our Unitarian ancestors did not rush to their New Year’s resolutions. There was an important first step that they saw, the step of not looking forward but looking back, the step of reflection. To pause and to reflect on the year that has passed because that’s one of the ways we convert years into life, by reflecting on the year that’s past, by trying to understand the lessons it has taught us. What have we learned? How have we changed? What were our losses? What were our joys? What is it that you want to carry forward with you into the New Year? And what is better off left behind? New Year’s was a time to step back and to kind of get a big picture on life.”
So now every year, around this time, I pause and reflect as a first step to renewing my enthusiasm for the upcoming year. I make lists from the last year – of people I’ve met, people who’ve influenced me, places I’ve been – whether a room, a city or any other type of place. I look for stories in those lists. Sometimes, I’ll go month by month and note what happened throughout the last year. And I begin to ask myself questions.
When was I most content, at peace? When did I feel happy? When did I feel frustrated? Why? What made my heart sing? How can I get more of whatever made me feel that way in the upcoming year?
– Mary Oliver, from the poem The Summer Day
Only after this reflection period is it New Year’s resolution time. In his sermon, Reverend Hardies cautioned that when making our New Year’s resolutions, we often fail, not because we set the bar too high for ourselves, but because a lot of times the resolutions we set “are not worthy of our high resolve.”
“Our ancestors used the word ‘consecration’ because in the New Year they thought to rededicate themselves to a holy purpose in their life, to an ultimate purpose in their lives, something big, something important, something worthy of their lives. And maybe if we recommitted ourselves to something worthy of our lives in the New Year, we would be more successful at keeping our New Years’ promises. A promise worthy of our lives.”
Maybe the spiritual/religious undertone of “consecration” doesn’t float your boat. In that case, you can find a similar source of inspiration in Matt Walker’s new book, Adventure in Everything. In February 2010, I stumbled upon Matt Walker’s article for Yoga Journal, Climb Ev’ry Mountain. He captivated me with this definition of adventure, which was not necessarily about extreme sports like rock climbing or mountaineering: “At its core, adventure is the willingness to commit to an uncertain outcome with an open heart and an open mind.” Since then, I’ve kept an eye out for his work and love the framework in his new book. Here are my notes from his webinar where he described the five elements of adventure:
- High endeavor – a goal worthy of your energy and devotion. Does engaging in this high endeavor bring out the best in you?
I have found lots of goals throughout the years that are worthy, but finding one that also brings out the best in you is the real trick. So it is with all New Year’s resolutions.
- Uncertain Outcome – the litmus test of adventure. You have to be an active participant in the journey. Can you tell the difference between the perceived and actual risk to make yourself more comfortable facing the uncertain outcome without anxiety?
Maybe this is why I like to make my New Year’s resolutions open-ended. Instead of making them quantitative – a known end state, I ask a question and pick something broad. In 2010, I asked myself “How can I be better in tune with my internal compass? How do I find out what truly makes my heart sing?” I later expressed this simply as a need to do something “badass” that year. I needed a hobby and I needed it to expend a lot of energy in order to figure out how I ticked. I didn’t know what that would be when I set that goal, but I found rock climbing and in that exploration, I’ve found out how to listen to my internal compass, and many other things, as well.
- Total commitment – not sucking it up, but a deep willingness and drive to meet your high endeavor with open eyes. It’s about having a wider lens to see other things that you wouldn’t expect to pop up and help you along the way.
Following what Reverend Hardies suggested, that sometimes we don’t put in the full commitment because the activity may not actually be worthy of our efforts, maybe we lack commitment because we’re just following some motion, picking things we think we should do. It’s not a stretch to say that if you find something that you deem worthy of your life, you’ll commit to it. Maybe not right away. Maybe you commit to a principle like “exploration” or “adventure” and then later commit to “the thing.” But there’s no substitute for commitment. In climbing, I practice it all the time. And then I transfer those lessons to other parts of my life. Like this blog.
- Tolerance for adversity – ability to be graceful, nimble, humor, style – to take that choice in how we respond to adversity. This is contagious. When you see it in others, when they see it in you, people want to do it themselves.
This is possibly a good New Year’s Resolution in and of itself. Last year, after having accomplished something I deemed “badass,” I needed a new resolution. After having learned how to tap into my inner compass, I had all of these ideas coming out of my ears. I was starting to act like the attention-deficit talking dog Dug in the Disney movie Up! – “Squirrel!” Thus, my 2011 question to myself was “How do I nurture my mind, capture and productively harness my ideas, while keeping myself inspired and grounded?” My resolution found its expression in the phrase “self mastery.” I can choose how I react and respond to the triggers, whether fear or anger or frustration. Climbing has helped me practice tolerance for adversity, as it is as much about the physical as the mental mastery.
- Great companionship – do you have relationships with people that you trust? Do you have a friend – someone who knows you well that you can be vulnerable with who will support you along the way. Do you have a mentor – someone who’s been through a similar situation? Do you have an ally – someone going through the situation at the same time as you?
I am blessed with wonderful friends, allies, mentors, and companions on this journey to find, follow, live, and sustain my passion. You know who you are, and you rock my world.
Cairns for your New Year’s journey:
- Reflect on last year. Make lists of people, places, things. Go month by month. Go through photos. Journal. Maybe even find the silver lining in Facebook’s Timeline layout.
- Ask yourself beautiful questions. Make note of your answers.
- Set your intentions for the upcoming year. What is it you plan to do with your one, wild and precious life?
Inspiration for your New Year’s journey:
- Psychology Today Blog: The Five Elements of Adventure: Authenticity, Purpose and Inspiration, by Matt Walker
- Forbes: How to Be More Interesting (in 10 easy steps), by Jessica Hagy
- Huffington Post: Top 10 Lessons for Living from the Wisest Americans by Karl A. Pillemer
- Marc and Angel Hack Life blog: 30 Things to Stop Doing to Yourself
- Marc and Angel Hack Life blog: 30 Things to Start Doing for Yourself
- NYT: The Joy of Quiet
What other practices do you have for New Years? What other sources of inspiration have you found?
Here’s another good inspiring article: Harvard Business Review Blog: What’s Your One Big Theme?.