I was so discouraged with our country’s direction at the end of 2016, that I missed what had become an annual More to Come… year-end update. Many commentators described 2017 as a “dumpster fire of a year.” Even Dave Barry had a hard time coming up with outrageous examples that exceeded our twisted reality. The title of this year’s review by Barry says it all: “2017: Did that really happen?”
My optimism for our country’s future hasn’t fully recovered in part because I find myself agreeing with Lewis Lapham when he writes:
“If the American system of government at present seems so patently at odds with its constitutional hopes and purposes, it is not because the practice of democracy no longer serves the interests of the presiding oligarchy (which it never did), but because the promise of democracy no longer inspires or exalts the citizenry lucky enough to have been born under its star. It isn’t so much that liberty stands at bay but, rather, that it has fallen into disuse, regarded as insufficient by both its enemies and its nominal friends. What is the use of free expression to people so frightened of the future that they prefer the comforts of the authoritative lie?”
Frightened by the future…that could be a theme of so much of 2017 in America.
It didn’t always seem this way. In my 2013 year-end post, I outlined seven rules for the next third of my life, with an optimism that I could live a long and fruitful life. For four years I’ve looked at them on my computer wallpaper as I’ve logged on in the morning. Colleagues have seen them and made comments. The family has been supportive. But in thinking recently about my difficulties in keeping up with my life goals in 2017, I realized that I had lost some faith in the future. My primary goal is to regain that faith in 2018.
At work and in our family life, 2017 was a year of progress and celebration, of which I am proud and which gives me hope for the future. But careful readers know that I can demonstrate some of the lighter symptoms of SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder), which a quick trip to sunnier climates (think the Pomona College Family Weekend in February) usually fixes. 2017 felt like a year when SAD-like symptoms (or perhaps TAD-like symptoms, and you can fill in the “T”) came and went throughout the year.
Reading a recent article by David DeSento helped me focus on what may have been missing from my 2017: that sense of gratitude for what I have been given. A psychologist, DeSento argues that social emotions — not willpower — helps us achieve our life goals.
“What these findings show is that pride (not arrogance, but pride in the skills one has), gratitude and compassion, whether we consciously realize it or not, reduce the human mind’s tendency to discount the value of the future. In so doing, they push us not only to cooperate with other people but also to help our own future selves. Feeling pride or compassion has been shown to increase perseverance on difficult tasks by over 30 percent. Likewise, gratitude and compassion have been tied to better academic performance, a greater willingness to exercise and eat healthily, and lower levels of consumerism, impulsivity and tobacco and alcohol use.
If using willpower causes stress, using these emotions actually heals: They slow heart rate, lower blood pressure and reduce feelings of anxiety and depression. By making us value the future more, they ease the way to patience and perseverance.”
I had recently been thinking about gratefulness and thankfulness. Putting all this together, I realized that I needed to add an eighth life rule for 2018 and beyond. So…here’s a quick look at that new rule plus some thoughts on how I did in 2017 with the original seven.
1. Be Grateful. Be Thankful. Be Compassionate. Every Day. Several years ago I made it a habit to say thank you to one person each day. Even in 2017, I managed to maintain that habit. Moving forward with this new rule, I want to expand that habit to being intentional about gratefulness, thankfulness, and compassion.
2. Exercise six days a week for the rest of your life. I had a good pattern of daily exercise through 2016, resulting in weight stabilization. Unfortunately, that didn’t continue in 2017, and my weight returned. For 2018, I want to look with gratitude at the health I’ve had through six decades of life, and find ways to build on that outlook to maintain it. I’m also going to keep the cartoon in mind where the doctor asks his middle-aged male patient, “Which is more inconvenient for you? 1 hour a day of exercise or 24 hours a day of dead?”
3. Listen more than you talk. It is always a challenge when I find myself in a place of some authority (either at work or home) not to grab the bully pulpit. While David Isay, the founder of Story Corps, says listening is hard, he also notes that listening is an act of love…and act that one never regrets. Both thoughts are worth remembering.
4. Spend less than you make. 2017 was another year when I didn’t buy any new guitars! (Although I can say that I gave it some serious thought.) I’m continuing to adjust some of my expectations in order to live with much less regular income in the not-too-distant future. I’m also thinking more about what to give away and how to do that to support those who have less.
5. Quit eating crap! Eat less of everything else. Candice, Andrew, and Claire all support me in this effort, but I know I turned to comfort food more than I should have in 2017. Like the rule about spending, I want to think about how eating less is an act of gratitude that what I have is enough.
6. Play music. The world is a better place when I play music. My music is better when I play with others. That’s the goal for 2018.
7. Connect and commit. Over the years since I set these rules, we made real progress in gathering people together on a regular basis. That slipped some in 2017. In the list Candice and I are assembling of 50 things we want to do in 2018, we already have a number of connections identified.
8. Don’t be a Grumpy Old Man. Enjoy life! I tried very hard not to let my SAD or TAD symptoms show through to others…in part, because this is probably the life rule I remember every day. But there is still progress to be made…and in addition to Ursula Le Guin’s recent book of essays on growing old, I enjoyed reading yesterday’s New York Times article entitled, Want to Be Happy? Think Like an Old Person. I laughed. I smiled. I saw some traits I recognized. I saw some things to work on.
Okay 2018: bring it on!
More to come…