Looking Both Ways in the New Year

Ah,

the new year! Starting over, a clean slate, a fresh beginning wrapped up in our lists of resolutions to improve some aspect of our lives, to make the year ahead better. But better than what? The uptick in ads and commercials for fitness club memberships, diet plans and body sculpting would indicate a narrow definition of “better.” Yet the human spirit seems to innately understand that self-improvement is so much more, that some deeper wisdom longs to elevate our status above the quest for the transitory illusion of physical perfection.

How do we honor that longing? How do we even find it and give it space to blossom? Perhaps we have a clue in the very name for this first month of the year. January comes from Janus, the two faced god of Roman mythology. Not to be misguided, in this case “two-faced” has a good connotation. Janus looks both to the past and the future and represents transitions, gateways, bridges, arches – all significant symbols we have come to associate with change and renewal in our lives. A statue of Janus has been standing on the Ponte Fabricio Bridge across the Tiber River in Rome since the time of Julius Caesar in 62 BC. To this day, people crossing the bridge touch the head of Janus hoping to invoke good fortune.

Bridges have represented transition throughout many cultures, mythologies and spiritualities. It is important to note that a bridge carries travelers two ways, something those early Romans apparently understood. But so much of popular sentiment instructs us to not look back, that the past is over, it’s done and cannot be  undone, that we must always forge ahead and have no regrets.

But if we never look back, how can we assess where we are in the here and now and how do we move forward in any meaningful way? It’s a sort of life triangulation – navigating successfully toward an unknown future point requires the known points of our present location and how we arrived here. And that, in turn, calls for reflection and self-examination which can – even should – include regrets.

And there’s the sticking point. While we applaud learning from our mistakes, we embrace a faux nobility when stating that we have no regrets about anything in our past as if we humans are perfect, saintly beings who just couldn’t possibly do anything wrong or hurtful. No wonder then that when an individual, a culture or a nation asks for an apology for harm caused, those three words – “I am sorry” – seem to stick in our collective throat.

I was in my mid-forties when I saw the Frances Ford Coppola movie, Apocalypse Now. To be sure, the movie has some powerful memorable scenes. But the one that punched me in the gut was a quiet, low-key moment when a mail pouch arrives onboard the boat carrying the soldiers upriver. There was no mistaking the joyful pleasure of each soldier as he was handed a letter or package from home. As I watched, I remembered that 20 years earlier when two brothers were stationed in Thailand during the Vietnam war, I had been so preoccupied with my own life that I had seldom written to them. I cried. This was a regret worthy of being acknowledged. To this day, similar scenes evoke an ache that will probably never go away and that’s a good thing. While I don’t wallow in my regret or beat myself up, each reminder nudges me to pay attention to the souls in my life.

So a candid assessment of the past, regrets as well as the triumphs, is crucial to successfully crossing the bridge of any transition in our lives. Like Janus, we need to look both ways, to reflect upon the past as well as anticipate the future, to not be afraid to shine light on actions and beliefs, to distinguish between what is a realistic dream and what is fantasy.

It should come as no surprise that there is more to reinventing ourselves than repeating an inspirational mantra. We know because we’ve tried it and we know others who have tried it; we fill our home and work space with post-it reminders, quotes and hints taped to the bathroom mirror, the coffee pot, the steering wheel, the computer – anywhere we’ll see it 50 or 100 times a day. We’ve been told this will bring about our desired change. But there we are the following year, doing it all over again.

The bridge between the conscious mind and the subconscious or transcendental self can be tricky, in part, because we humans are experts (perhaps stubbornly so) at adjusting reality to suit our personal convictions. Rather than rush headlong to the other side of the bridge, then, it is helpful to pause at some point in the crossing, to look back and see not only where we’ve come from, but how far we’ve come. Every single one of us has a unique “success” story but we miss it because we buy into the hype and hysteria of the commonly-held view of success: feats that rock the headlines, bestow awards and fame, and gather followers on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.

For some people, simply swinging their legs over the side of the bed and getting up in the morning takes more courage and tenacity than many of us can possibly fathom; yet these people are never recognized and don’t make any “year’s best” lists in any category. On the other hand, the person who easily springs out of bed and breezes effortlessly through dozens of events during a 16-hour workday is held in high esteem, receives recognition, bonuses, fame and repeatedly appears on any number of “best of” lists. If we could reframe our mind-set to meet each individual where they are – rather than compare them to others and see them as better than or less than – perhaps we could come around to an acknowledgment of the dignity and reverence each of us desires and deserves.

Eleanor LeonardThe enduring popularity of the movie It’s A Wonderful Life speaks to at least a desire to appreciate the “simple life.” We attribute a cloak of nobility to George Bailey, the Jimmy Stewart character who, through a series of small day-to-day choices and decisions, benefits the lives of many in his community, all of whom are living out lives that would, by any measure, be considered “ordinary.” George himself is caught up in the misconception of “success” and it takes the appearance of Clarence, his trainee guardian angel, to point out all the good things that had escaped George’s attention. He, and we the viewers, recalibrate our thinking and by the end of the movie join in honoring George’s integrity, steadfastness and sincerity.

And then we spend significant amounts of time, energy and money on what’s popular, trendy or fashionable, making our lives more complicated in the process. A Chinese proverb states: “One dog barks at something and a hundred dogs bark at the bark.” Today, with all the media sources, the barking has become so intensified that we get caught up and lost in the cacophony. At the same time, any one of us will tell you how individualistic we are. Therein lies the paradox.

Clint Eastwood said: “There’s a rebel lying deep in my soul. Anytime anybody tells me the trend is such and such, I go the opposite direction. I hate the idea of trends. I hate imitation; I have a reverence for individuality.” Biographies of successful and famous people are dominated by examples of turning away from the popular, the trendy, going against the grain, ignoring what they “should” or “must” do and instead striking out on what they believe at a deep, cellular level is the right course for them.

Friedrich Nietzsche wrote “You have your way. I have my way. As for the right, the correct way, and the only way, it does not exist.” Each of us is the cartographer of our own life map. Hindsight is valuable because it gives us the information to chart the reefs and deep waters of our life journey. Acknowledging regretful actions or unrelenting and unproductive behavior as well as giving ourselves credit for simply being alive and present, can provide markers that get us to make a pivotal course adjustment.

Most of us can surely use the help of a navigator, a guide or teacher. One of the best in the past 30 years has been Dr. Wayne W. Dyer, often seen during PBS television pledge drives. He died in 2015 but the benefits of his wisdom via podcasts, writings, videos, lectures and daily inspirations continue to be available through the magnanimous gift of his website which is still maintained. He worked closely with another inspirational navigator/teacher, Louise Hay, founder of Hay House, whose website also continues to carry much of his work including a feature, The Forever Wisdom of Dr. Wayne W. Dyer. For the new year, they offered an excerpt from Wayne’s book, The Power of Intention, that included one of his lists of helpful reminders. Here are 3 of them:

•     Take time to be mindful of everything around you. Begin to look at your entire surroundings in a new light. Observe every detail on every face, every building and every object. If you do this often enough it will become a habit that will facilitate your being alive in every moment of the year.

•     Rid yourself of mundane chores that are not really that important. Spend more time making your life a pleasure.

•     Feel good about yourself. You are a magnificent human being. Always feel good about that self that you are always with.

These are some things to carry with you as you cross the bridge, whichever direction you are headed. Maybe you’ll get to the other side, maybe not. So follow the unexpected; make it part of your journey. After all, the Dalai Lama tells us, “Remember that not getting what you want is sometimes a wonderful stroke of luck.”

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