We are launching into what is sure to be one of the more consequential, historic, and maybe even defining years of our lives within this extraordinary two-and-a-half century-long American experiment in representative democracy. As a psychotherapist, I have experienced that when a person is going through a trying season, certain qualities or attitudes often tip a proverbial scale.
When we posture ourselves to listen well—to others; to our own fears, discouragements, and pain; to our inner courage, tenderness, and awe—we more freely navigate difficult territories and more effectively confront trials. Many Americans might agree that this is a trying season, that we are driving forward through difficult territories and facing extraordinary trials. Indeed, many feel called to their own change, be it through social activism or personal growth.
As always, some will make resolutions at the turn of the new year. Here are three resolutions I’d argue we can’t afford not to make:
1. Be Kind
Kindness is among the most important of the chosen attitudes in human life that we must embody if we are to succeed in cultivating meaningful relationships and to build bridges of understanding with those who are different than us—even those we disagree with.
A Marine mentioned in session that other service members frequently talk about their master sergeant’s face, about how “mean” he always looks. She said other Marines are afraid of him, whereas she would say, “He’s just like all of us.” One day, she and fellow Marines walked past him in a hallway, and she spontaneously and warmly said something witty to him, hoping he would react. He stopped and looked back at her, paused, and then started laughing. “That was the first time they had ever seen him laugh,” she told me. “Everyone’s been asking me, ‘How are you so calm around him?’ I told them, ‘You have to make people feel comfortable around you. It’s your responsibility, no matter who they are.’ ”
Kindness is perceived in the molecules of energy that shift facial tensions and raise or lower eyelids half a millimeter. Kindness is known in the gentleness that is shown in a difficult moment: through that smile which communicates our humility rather than our superiority or fear; in the ways we show up or shut out, embrace or oppress; and by the tone and tenor of our compassion or cynicism. Now, if ever, is a moment for kindness, for moments shape our lives.
One would be wise to keep in mind modern aphorisms about walking a mile in another’s shoes and about seeking first to understand and then be understood. Our ever-reactive impulses have power to poison understanding and relationships and paralyze our own sense of character. Ancient teachings instruct us to do to others as we would have them do to us. This sentiment has also been put, aptly, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”
2. Be Adaptable
Life is difficult, yet we have opportunity to rise up in daring courage or, in our weariness, run the risk of playing into vicious cycles and even self-fulfilling prophecies. Many oscillate between varying degrees of domestic isolation and identity confusion, avoiding relationships and contriving false solutions to life’s problems. We must learn to be responsive to the realities we face, and we do so not through rigidity but also rarely with an absence of anxiety.
When we manage to have our feelings act in concert with our principles and our reason, we find wisdom not far behind. As we learn to sit with our anxiety without reacting to it, we have opportunity to become responsive to deeper meanings, broader truths, and larger realities at play in the world around us.
The same Marine sat contemplatively in my office the week after having a significant car accident. Her car had risen into the air and then tumbled down an embankment, slamming into a concrete wall. She told me she’d been trying to make sense of it. She said the officer asked how she got out of the car, and she didn’t know. He told her she was very lucky. She said she is left to assume God intervened and got her out of the car safely. A nurse told her a nerve was pulled in her back that is connected to her legs and that it is a “miracle” she can walk.
For a few days after the accident, she was shaken up. Weeks later, she reported she had a greater sense of meaning in life: “Ever since the accident, I notice things differently—like when people say nice things to me, even trivial things that I wouldn’t have noticed before.” I expressed that this was a beautiful effect of a bad thing that had happened, one that reflects well on her capacity for resilience. She added, “People complain about this base. One guy complained to me about his situation. I see things much bigger now. I told him, ‘It’s what you make of it.’ ”
We must remain differentiated from the events and emotions that encircle us and make difficult but necessary decisions about what to think and do. When we manage to have our feelings act in concert with our principles and our reason, we find wisdom not far behind. As we learn to sit with our anxiety without reacting to it, we have opportunity to become responsive to deeper meanings, broader truths, and larger realities at play in the world around us.
3. Be Yourself
Socrates wrote, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” What, then, does it mean to be “ourselves”? There must be acknowledgment of the defenses we instinctually raise against benign threats and the multiple personas, or masks, we wear in order to remain safely invulnerable to the risk of rejection. We must remove armor that protects us from imagined threats we have transferred from an outdated map.
Sometimes we don’t get around to reexamining our lives each year. Sometimes it is in the facing of our trials that we reexamine. I asked the Marine, “How has the accident changed you? How have you been so quick to go from being so ‘shaken up’ to finding greater meaning in life?” She said, “It hasn’t so much changed me as freed me to be more of who I already am.” I asked her what parts of herself she meant, and she shared, “The kinder, more flexible parts.”
In this moment of social uncertainty and change, we could all stand to be kinder and more flexible. In some cases, it may require some work, perhaps in therapy. I live in the apple capital of the world—the Wenatchee Valley of Washington state. I have learned that for trees to produce good fruit, they must undergo significant pruning each year. We must also prune parts of ourselves from time to time—habits, hobbies, attitudes. Despair grows as we feed it, and so does hope and expectancy. Pruning leads to fruit. Beautiful, bountiful, delightfully tasty fruit.
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