Reflections at the Turn of Another Year
My birthday comes hard by the end of the year on December 28th. Because of its proximity of Christmas, I never paid much attention to it and neither did most of my family. We were too busy with Christmas and the New Year. I was fortunate to get cards and an occasional gift, sandwiched as I was between two major events; we always held a large New Year’s Day dinner for the extended family.
Because of the proximity of the New Year to my birthday, I spend more time in inward contemplation of my life, as do many people, than in exuberant outer celebration of my birth. No whistles and bells.
Resolutions were never my strong suit, but I have piled up hours over the decades musing on previous years and my contribution to them, or lack thereof. I have never checked this thoroughly, but one of my beloved friends whose birthday was December 25th had a similar feeling and approach to her birthday. I wonder if it is this way for people who are Christians and whose birthday falls close to Christmas, that contemplation holds a more central place than celebration. She agreed that our birthdays, growing up, were more occasions of sobriety than festivity, albeit a sobriety neither somber nor morose, but pensive and thoughtful about the meaning of life and our place in it.
The paradoxical part of this contemplation, for me, is that I always come up short in terms of my contribution to the world around me but, because of my Christian faith, this does not spiral downward into depression or self-abasement. I tend to look, as the old year passes, for ways to reach out more creatively and effectively in the new, to harm as few people as I can and to uplift as many as I am able by whatever efforts I can bring to a hurt and broken world.
For this is indeed a broken and mangled world. It has ever been thus, and no change is on the horizon. I wish I could believe that prayer will end suicide bombings or the abuse of children. I wish I could believe that political negotiation will bring lasting peace anywhere in the world. I wish there were simplicity when my eye falls only on complexity and knots too complicated to untie. None of these wishes is likely to come true so I spend no time on them.
What is worth spending time on is the slow, methodical untying of the knot you have the power and the skill to untie. You take small steps. You are not going to save the world. Maybe you give one child another one day without cynicism, hatred or psychological ruin. Maybe your attentive concern will enable one person to keep going another day in the midst of seeming failure. As has been said, never underestimate the power of one. That one person can be you, or me, who stops another from jumping off the cliff psychologically or physically.
St Seraphim of Sarov, my favorite saint for many reasons, is known for this saying: “Acquire peace, and thousands around you will be saved.” He exemplified that saying. Not a day goes by that I don’t repeat that saying to myself as a goad toward constantly renewed and peaceful behavior. There’s a beloved prayer from Optino Monastery in Russia, which the Communists tried to destroy but which has come back to life miraculously – as have so many. It contains this line: “Teach me to act firmly and wisely without embarrassing or embittering others.” That petition might be the beginning of great things. Happy New Year! No, compassionate New Year.