Do I want a meaningful new year, or just grow older?
“Happy New Year!” We wish each other. Or other occasions, we say things like, “Happy Birthday!” or “We wish you a happy married life,” or “All the best in your new job!”
Others’ wishes will not make our day or our new year happy or productive or meaningful, just as someone wishing me an enjoyable picnic cannot guarantee my safety or nice weather.
A new day, a new year, or any stretch of time is simply capital—to be used well or badly, to be wasted or invested, as we choose.
What will I do with this new lease of life?
I can learn from how spent my past year.
I can learn from what makes me happy as I look back, and from my regrets.
Here are findings we can learn from:
- A famous study done by Harvard University on what makes people happy as they grow older gave this one very clear finding: What makes us happy (and also keeps us healthy) as we grow older is CLOSE RELATIONSHIPS.
- Another finding, made by Australian nurse Bronnie Ware through her work with the dying, concerned the COMMONEST REGRETS PEOPLE FELT AS THEY FACED DEATH. The first one was: I wish I had lived by what I believed in, rather than trying to please people. Other regrets included: Focussing on work and neglecting relationships, not staying in touch with friends, not having laughed enough, and not having been a good human being.
- An Indian research paper, trying to see how fulfilled women religious are, found that what made the largest number of them happy as they looked back was: HAVING WORKED FOR THE POOR.
- A Sister, who is also a therapist, learnt that she passed from depression to joy through a simple change in attitude: WHATEVER THE SETTING, I CAN BRING MORE LOVE INTO IT. This change, she says, has kept her happy.
- Fr Patrick, a priest-formator, complained for years that “superiors do not understand me and my plans.” He moved from grumbling to enthusiasm when he realized: “The real issue is not that superiors do not understand my plans, but that I do not try to understand God’s plans for me. Once I made this shift, I have been happy.” WHOSE PLANS AM I TRYING TO FOLLOW—MINE, OR GOD’S?
An Alphabet Soup
Based on such life-changing discoveries, I am serving you an “alphabet soup” for the new year—with eight ingredients that can help us grow up in the new year—and always.
A: AWARENESS. Awareness is probably the biggest help for growth. We easily walk through life unaware. We do not see or hear. We can be lost in a fantasy world of our own. Am I aware of what is happening in me—what makes me deeply happy or unhappy, what my heart is looking for? Am I aware how my behaviour affects others? Have I got in touch with my potential and my limitations? When asked, “Are you a God, a saint, etc.,” the Buddha replied, “No.” “What are you, then?” His beautiful reply: “I am awake!” May you and I be fully awake! May we not sleep-walk through life (as most people do).
B: BEAUTY. Ideas may move us. Things can attract us. People influence us. It is beauty that “seduces” our mind and heart, and makes us glow. We can find beauty in nature, in people, in words, in music, in silence. The beauty of a song or of child’s smile, the beauty of a bird or of a tree in bloom, the beauty of literature or of a peaceful countenance can move us to tears and make us better. There is much beauty around us—and in us, provided we are open to seeing it. We must leave the world a more beautiful place than we found it.
C: CELEBRATION. Celebrate life! There is much to celebrate—every day. We call a Mass a celebration, for in it we celebrate God’s love and Christ’s real Presence with us. We need not wait for special occasions to celebrate life. We can start the day looking forward to meeting God, doing good, sharing love, and end the day looking back and thanking. We can truly celebrate every single day. What are we waiting for?
D: DEATH. In his simple and brilliant Commencement Address at Stanford University, Steve Jobs told the young students: “Death is one of the best inventions of life.” It sweeps away the old, brings in the new. Unlike animals we are aware of our mortality. Our time on this earth is limited. This day, this hour, this moment is precious, because it will end soon. The art of wise living is to set priorities for our limited life and pursue them while we have two priceless gifts—health and time. Faith is not an invitation to fantasize about life after death; it is a warm and urgent call to do something beautiful with the time before death.
E: ENERGY. What energizes you? What makes you want to get up in the morning? What brings out the best in you? Are you able to enjoy the simple pleasures of life—a glass of water, a simple chat, a small prayer, a walk, a look at nature? Do you feel nourished and energized as you do these very ordinary things? The most energizing pursuits in life are love and faith. When we love someone deeply, we do not feel tired caring for that person. When we believe deeply (in God, in an ideal, in a dream, …) we get really charged to pursue what we strongly believe in.
F: FEELINGS. Feelings matter. Listen to what you really feel. Understand how others feel. Feelings are facts. In fact, most people are led more by their feelings than by the beautiful theories they claim to follow. Thus, likes and dislikes, attraction and revulsion, fear and jealousy, anger and depression, explain most human actions. Virtues are not the denial or suppression of feelings, but their wise and adequate expression. Just as a tamed dog is very useful, a tamed emotion is virtue—very useful for life and a good source of positive energy. “Negative” emotions (e.g., jealousy or irrational fear) can sap our energy, kill our happiness and damage relationships. Do you take time to understand how you feel and why, and to understand the feelings behind others’ reactions?
G: GROWTH. Growing older is automatic; growing up is not. All of us are one day older than yesterday, and one year older than twelve months ago. The real issue is: Am I growing up? Just as someone else cannot make me taller by pulling me from both ends, but can help me by feeding me correctly, others can help my growth—through example, encouragement, guidance, challenge, corrections, loving support. But no one else can make me grow up. As a young priest, doing much good in his parish, told me, “Already in the seminary I was convinced that you, staff members, cannot form us; we form ourselves.” External events can be hard or pleasant, but they do not make us mature or childish; our responses do. Good and bad example is part of everyone’s experience. What I choose to follow makes me the person I am. As the saying goes, “the same sun that melts butter hardens mud.”
H: HAPPINESS. The sooner we learn that others cannot make us happy, the better. Others can help or hinder, be nice or nasty. Happiness and unhappiness is largely our own making. No one gets a perfect set of cards to play with; we play with the cards we are dealt. Why wait for happiness in some distant future? Why not be very happy today? Why waste time blaming and playing helpless or giving excuses, when we can change much by changing the way we look at things and respond to events?
Want a simple suggestion for making yourself happy just now? Think of ten good things you experienced today, and be grateful. Thank God in your heart. Thank the people who have been good to you. You will find yourself becoming happy. (Just feeling grateful is not enough. Experiments on happiness show that expressing gratitude matters for happiness.)
In the new year, why not try this “alphabet soup”?
Decide to construct a happy and meaningful new year.
May you and I not merely grow older, but really grow up. Why else are life and health given to us?
Try this: Imagine the person you are now. Next, imagine the person you want to be by December 31, 2019. What do you see? What are the main differences?
It will help if you can draw pictures of your two images. Draw the second picture as vividly as you can. May it be a beautiful, life-giving picture.
MAKE IT COME TRUE.
Fr Joe Mannath SDB
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