December 27, 2018

A New Year’s Resolution from Mary Oliver that isn’t just Another “Self-Improvement Project.”


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After the hubbub of Christmas, Hanukkah, and Solstice celebrations, the flurry of visiting family and friends, and the coma of too many holiday cookies passes, there is just enough time for one quick breath before watching the ball drop.

Three, two, one, Happy New Year! 

Once the cheers end, the race to claim a New Year’s resolution begins. This process frequently turns into a self-improvement project. The last few years for me have involved commitments to complete the Insanity workouts, teach myself Russian, and volunteer for an environmental organization. I have fallen short of all three.

Through the resolutions process, something happens when our resolutions come from a mental attitude of trying to change or fix ourselves or our world. With this attitude, it doesn’t take long to drop into old routines, get distracted by daily life, and feel a sense of “burnout” from our striving for change.

It’s time we do something different, but what?

At first I wasn’t sure…until I stumbled across Mary Oliver’s poem “The Journey.” In her poem, she describes how we feel torn every which way by the people in our lives who desperately cry for us to “mend their lives.” This is all too real.

We have family and friends, coworkers, social justice, and community issues all vying for our attention. Just reading her words I feel my anxiety rise, thinking of all the responsibilities I have and all the resolutions I could make to be “better.” There are simply too many needs and not enough time!

Then, at the very end of the poem, the narrator pushes past all the demanding voices, writing:

“And there was a new voice

Which you slowly recognized as your own,

That kept you company

As you strode deeper and deeper into the world

Determined to do

The only thing you could do—

Determined to save

The only life you could save.”

“’Save the only life you could save?’ Does she mean my own? Wait, isn’t this selfish?” asks a voice in my head.

I pause, considering what she’s asking, and feel great resistance. For those of us accustomed to serving our family and community and engaging the world around us, Mary Oliver asking us to turn inward and focus on saving our own life is radical—and even errs on the side of heresy!

Ultimately though, the only thing we have any true control over is ourselves. With this understanding, we can stop trying to fix. Instead, we learn to understand our own responses, become aware of our feelings and needs, and develop a greater awareness of how we show up in the world. From this place, we have a better chance to transform our attitudes and choose how we greet every circumstance and every day.

No matter our resolutions, we will gain weight and lose weight. We will be seen as a good friend and a forgetful friend. We will win fights for equality and lose them. All things are changing and when our resolution becomes just another “fight,” it becomes an act of intolerance for the true nature and reality of our life as it is, now.

There is nothing to fix.

If we instead recommit this year to our meditation, yoga, tai chi, centering prayer, or other contemplative practices, we are consciously embracing an attitude of befriending ourselves. Our resolution becomes a practice of embracing what is. We find the still, quiet place within ourselves, so that we can actually begin to hear our own voice, like Mary calls us to.

Ultimately, all we need is already right here, within us. We don’t have to change ourselves or constantly work to prove ourselves by saving everyone around us. It’s exhausting, and I personally am done with New Year’s resolutions that, even if subconsciously, come from this mental attitude.

Mary Oliver is right, it’s time to start the journey of knowing myself, this “being” that I have the most intimate relationship with but whom I have neglected and discarded for others.

Through my meditation practice, I commit to clarity, space, and myself. I commit to reconnecting with my own sacred breath and pulsing heartbeat. I’m ready to hold sacred space in 2019 for meditation and contemplation, which is really nothing more than a resolution for exploring, befriending, and trusting my true nature.

And maybe, just maybe, as we heal and build this inner relationship with ourselves, we might just love and serve others along the way.


Read “The Journey,” by Mary Oliver here


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