It’s three days until the new year and that kind of matters and it kind of doesn’t matter at all. By that I mean three days from now this year is coming to an end. And by that I also mean in four days it will be just another day. Likewise, today is another day.
Here’s the thing: it’s kind of all in our minds, the end of the year. But that doesn’t make it meaningless. Shakespeare wrote, “for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”* I probably wouldn’t go that far. Some things are objectively good or bad, however we think about them. But other things we shape by how we think of them. I’m not going for “power of positive thinking” here. But I do believe we have choices as to how we think about transitions. Beginnings can help. Endings can give closure.
Part of my perspective, of course, is that whatever helps you get through the day without damaging yourself or others is a good thing. That’s a bit of a low bar…unless you’re trying to survive the day. Then that “low bar” becomes one of those movie shots where you’re looking straight up the sheer rock face, like the Cliffs of Insanity, and wondering how in the hell you’re going to climb that. Then that “low bar”–and by the way, berating yourself that it should be a low bar when it feels impossible doesn’t make it any easier but does make you feel worse–is all you can manage. Then that low bar is cause for celebration.
So is it the end of a horrible year? Is it the conclusion of feeling alienated from church, from most other Christians, from people whom you thought believed as you do but have made choices that contradict everything you value? Is it the end of the world as we know it, and you feel fine? Is it the end of the beginning (of the outbreak of love)?**
Are there things to celebrate? Did Jesus show you grace this year? Do you know grace a little better? Can you offer a little more grace than you could before? Do you believe more or less than you did a year ago that God loves you?
Sometimes those questions encourage us and we can see real, if not always quantifiable, growth. Sometimes those questions just drive the nails in harder. This is what I mean by “it’s all in our minds” and “we get to decide.” If you can look back at the year and rejoice in what God has done or how you’ve changed, do it. Have a party. But if this moment in time only reminds you how much the year cost you and how many new scars you added, you aren’t obligated to dredge it all up. I don’t mean drink it away or hide from it; I mean acknowledge it, learn from it, but look forward. If surviving the year is the one thing to celebrate, make that the party.
Because a new year is starting and you can leave this one behind. I hope that strikes you as good news. I hope you have both reasons to celebrate and goals to anticipate (sorry, sometimes the clunky near-rhyme says it best). I’ve shared before that I like New Year’s Resolutions in my own goofy way. They help me. Many people mock resolutions and race to see how quickly they can break ’em. I’ve already made clear what I think of cynicism. It’s harder and takes more courage to hope. I’ll stick with hope. I’m making resolutions. But call them “goals,” if you prefer.
The truth is, of course, that you can set a new goal on December 29 and it will have the same power as one you set on January 1. The change won’t happen because of the date; the change will happen when we break old habits and develop new ones. Doing so requires practicing different responses to our triggers.*** Breaking habits is difficult because the routines become hardwired as patterns in our neurons. When you “automatically” turn at an intersection but this time it means you’re going the wrong way, that happens because your brain took the cue “We’re crossing the bridge” and triggered the routine “we turn here when we cross the bridge so we can go there.” Those routines get established pretty strongly, but they aren’t impossible to rewire.
I’m simplifying here, but we have to overwrite the routine that follows the cue. When we lived up in the mountains, often I would drive in and out of town multiple times a day, which meant that when I got on a certain road (the south end of Wenatchee Avenue) that triggered the “going home” routine. But I don’t “automatically” go that direction anymore. Sometimes my brain fires up, “Hey, remember when we used to live out there and drive that way all the time?” But that routine is now completely overwritten by different repeated behavior.**** The New Year is a good time to change destructive habits and start recovering from addictions. Likewise, today is a good time.
I hope you can find encouragement in this. I mention this in the context of approaching our New Year because sometimes it’s easier to believe we can change when we see a fresh start. I have some habits I need to change in 2020. Our family will observe our second annual “No Sugar January,” following our annual “I can’t believe how badly I ate December!” I’m celebrating how much I wrote in 2019 and how I established good writing habits. I need to develop some productive marketing habits and improve at using my time more effectively. I need to spend less time on social media and more time connecting with people again.
May God help us to remember the beauty we saw in 2019. May the redemption we experienced grow while the discouragement and sorrow fade. Jesus hear my prayer, may we see your truth and hope more clearly in 2020. May we become people of grace this year.
*Hamlet, Act 2 Scene 2: “Why, then, ’tis none to you, for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. To me it is a prison. Well, then it isn’t one to you, since nothing is really good or bad in itself—it’s all what a person thinks about it. And to me, Denmark is a prison.” No telling whether Shakespeare personally subscribed to this view of subjective value.
**REM for the first reference, Midnight Oil for the second.
*** All of us get triggered all the time. “Triggered” simply means we detect a cue that causes a neuron to fire. The smell of coffee, one of your children screaming at another of your children, the alarm, the book on your nightstand. Saying someone is “triggered” is just the pop psychology recognition of a stronger response, which again, we all have all the time.
**** Addiction works fundamentally the same way, but often involves physiological (and/or psychological) dependency on the addiction behavior. It wasn’t hard to break the habit of turning up toward Stemilt Creek, because my body didn’t get cravings and cold sweats when I didn’t make that drive…just some sadness. When we’ve developed an addiction, we must do more rewiring to break it, and often that involves avoiding the cues and building new routines that help prevent us from experiencing the addiction triggers. Simply put, when we’re recovering alcoholics we don’t hang out all day in the bar. Undergirding all of this must be prayer and self-honesty.