3 New Year’s Resolutions We Can’t Afford Not to Make

Red-brown tinted image of two older teens sitting on ledge by water pressing hands together to form a bridgeWe 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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  • Poppie

    Poppie

    December 29th, 2016 at 8:57 AM

    Sometimes I really do believe that staying flexible and fluid are the best things that you can do for yourself and your mental health, period.

  • arnie

    arnie

    December 29th, 2016 at 3:15 PM

    It is true, we all need to practice a little more kindness with one another/

    This year has been especially difficult for many people and it is during the stressful times that most of us have a hard time with extending kindness to our neighbor.

    But this is the exact moment that we need to stick together, we need to be kind and gentle with one another, and do for others what we would wish and hope that they would do for us.

    Kindness, whether we believe it or not, is truly contagious

  • Eleanor

    Eleanor

    December 30th, 2016 at 9:06 AM

    Mine feels like I have to start this year and not wait any longer to get into the habit of saving. We live paycheck to paycheck and most of the time we are scrambling before the next pay day to figure out what we can put off. I am so tired of living like this but I have gotten to the point where it feels like I am in it so deep that I am not even sure how to make it out.

    We say every year that this is what we are going to do but I don’t know that our marriage can actually take much more if we don’t start making good on this promise. Money issues are literally tearing us apart.

  • basil

    basil

    December 30th, 2016 at 1:05 PM

    There have been so many things that have gone in my life that I am not even sure who I really am anymore. I think that I keep those parts hidden because I am afraid of what someone will think of me if I don’t do this or act like that. And so I hide my true self. I am sure that I would be much happier if I could some way stop doing that.

  • ERIN

    ERIN

    December 30th, 2016 at 4:21 PM

    For me this coming year it has to be about taking care of myself physically. I stopped exercising a few years ago, the time never felt like it was available anymore but since I quit I have felt so sluggish and run down. I eat the wrong things and never really get in much physical activity. I know that it is taking its toll on my health so I have to commit to making some big changes in that area.

  • Myra

    Myra

    December 31st, 2016 at 7:44 AM

    I would love it if we all could simply resolve to be a little kinder to both ourselves and our neighbors.
    think about the huge changes that this could bring about if this is a kindness that we could begin to spread worldwide.

  • Vita

    Vita

    December 31st, 2016 at 1:06 PM

    All of these are so personal but how about promoting world peace? If we don’t do more of that then none of us are even going to be here that much longer anyway.

  • Samantha

    Samantha

    January 2nd, 2017 at 8:52 AM

    My husband and I just had this talk the other day, that we have got to commit this year to taking better care of ourselves and our entire family this year. I think that in the past we have allowed too many other things take precedent, mainly work, and we have to get to the mindset that work is not what will sustain us, it is ourselves and our families. So this is our year to take better care of ourselves physically, mentall, spiritually and financially. I think that once we can find some equilibrium and peace in our lives then the other smaller things will begin to fall into place.

  • Jane

    Jane

    January 3rd, 2017 at 8:15 AM

    There is a fine line between being able to be adaptable but also being able to remain true to yourself.

  • tamara

    tamara

    January 7th, 2017 at 11:48 AM

    I do agree with you Jane but there are some people who are so adamantly against any sort of change that I really feel like it impacts their lives in a detrimental way. I think that the more flexible you can be when you don’t necessarily have to be allows you to hold your ground in the times when that is important too.

  • Karley

    Karley

    January 9th, 2017 at 4:47 AM

    I will admit that last year was a very tough one for me and i know that I probably wasn’t always on my best behavior. It is true that when bad things are happening to you sometimes you feel like the only way to gain a little control is to hurt others the way that you are hurting. Misery loves company right?

    But I know now that this is not the path that I choose for my life. I have been sad and hurt but why would I ever want to do to another person what has been done to me? That is selfish and really it isn’t any way to heal from that pain.

    A better motivation for me and one that I think will definitely be a lot more helpful and healthier for me is to extend kindness even when I have not so much been given that myself. Extend that kindness and hopefully that too will one day find it’s way back around to me.

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