So, here’s a twist on New Year’s resolutions: Instead of making promises for change in the days ahead, take a minute and inventory things you learned and ways you changed in the year behind you. What became of you in the last 12 months? Progress? Regress? Inertia, or even stagnation? Did you add to arguments for hope, generosity and compassion? Or did you strengthen the case of cynicism and bitterness? Is the list of things about which you are certain that you are right getting longer or shorter? Any surprising, unexpected evolutions of selfhood?
Here’s a great mystery: How and why does change – that is, growth – happen?
I don’t know that I have ever significantly changed my life by making and keeping a New Year’s Resolution. But I know that, from time to time, the universe just intervenes in my life and changes me. It is sometimes subtle, sometimes dramatic, but always unbidden. It just happens. Something or someone or some experience just interrupts my way of life, grabs me by the throat, and says something so obvious and so real that, right there in that moment, I am changed.
It’s not an effort or a discipline. It’s a happening.
A few years ago, I was doing heavy Spring Cleaning. I had torn apart my bedroom, painted it, installed new baseboards, and combed through every drawer and shelf culling unnecessary life litter. I combed through an old briefcase when I found the years-old letter. It’s from a former employer. It contains an abject lie. A petty, wicked lie. The author used this lie to advance what is arguably the ugliest injustice of my professional career. I lay the letter and a few other things from the briefcase on my bed, dumping the remaining contents in a trash bag.
I’m out running errands when the happening happens. The cosmic intervention begins. In this case, the universe pours the intervention through my eldest son, who is calling me on the phone. He says my room is looking good. But he found the letter. He knows the story. He was there. He watched me suffer. But his question today is, “Why do you still have this letter?”
I catch the question in stride, and say, without irony, “I keep that letter in case I ever have the opportunity to humiliate [my employer].”
“Well, that’s ridiculous,” he says, almost warmly. “I know you, and you wouldn’t humiliate her if you had the chance. That’s not how you roll.”
This is how computers must feel when you simply pull the plug, then plug them back in. The computer reboots, and asks if you would like it to “start normally” because it wasn’t exited properly. Seriously, I’m stunned. I have nothing to say. All I can think is, “Well … yeah, that’s true.”
My boy breaks the pause: “Can I take it out to the barbeque grill and burn it? I would really enjoy that.”
“Sure,” I say. It comes out of my mouth like a question.
And when I got back home, the chief piece of “evidence for the state” was mere rustling ashes on a back yard barbeque grill. I stared at it. I noticed the raw power and weight of what was absent. I had no feeling at all, save for feeling free. Lighter. Relieved. This injustice in my life is irrelevant. Utterly irrelevant. It requires none of my attention or energy. The whole experience was about as random as encountering a mugger in a parking garage. Which is to say that, in the end, it wasn’t even about me.
And my son is right. The story I’d crafted and sold to myself as a reason for keeping the letter was absolute fiction. Self-delusion. I kept the letter as a psychic ball and chain around my ankle for no other banal and embarrassing reason except memorializing the injustice made me feel self-righteous, indulged, and strangely comforted.
My boy set me free in the purifying fires of a rusty Weber Kettle barbeque grill.
I think it’s a gift to see clearly that you are utterly blind. To hear clearly how deaf you are. To be told the abject truth about how artfully you lie to yourself.
There is something liberating about being rather ridiculous and knowing that you are.
(Steven Kalas writes a regular column for this newspaper. He is the author of the book “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)