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This week brings us to the end of one of the more consequential years of recent memory. And, true to what it has been since the clock struck midnight on January 1, 2020, the year is ending with the same chaotic, unsettling energy it has had all year. We will start 2021 with a raging global pandemic, deep economic uncertainty, acute social and political polarization, and a democracy hanging on by a thread.
Ready or not, 2021 is here.
New years are an opportunity to reset and renew. Gyms fill, promises are made, and optimism abounds. For me, that optimism is often short-lived.
I am terrible at resolutions. For me, resolutions are often just a list of shit I have no chance of doing. For me, New Year’s resolutions are just a historical record of future failure. I am not gonna eat healthier. I am not gonna finish the novel. I won’t be drinking eight 8 ounces glasses of water a day. I know I won’t. There really isn’t much use in writing that stuff down like this year will be any different.
My resolutions are usually doomed for a few reasons. Some of these are personal - I tend to chafe against expectations, even ones I have for myself. And some of the reasons are structural. The way we collectively think about resolutions is wrong in a lot of ways. We think of resolutions as some kind of iron-clad guarantee. I willlose 20 pounds. We think in absolutes, and we are overly confident we will do what we say we will do, when much of the time we don’t. Gyms are way less full on March 1.
Our resolutions are often too rigid. We have been conditioned by capitalism to believe that goals are only valuable if they are SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, timely). Goals that are dreamy, vague, aspirational, or otherwise not SMART, are deemed frivolous at best, invalid at worst. Goals in our society tend to only matter if they add value, can be tracked, and if they become promises kept. We internalize that message and think ourselves failures if we don’t have a list of SMART goals ready on January 1, complete with an Excel spreadsheet to track our progress.
It took me a while to get here, but I have learned that the world is a little more complex, and a lot more variable, than has been suggested to us. The world is certainly more chaotic than we like to think. 2020 reminded us of that. Shit happens. Things change. Priorities shift. Plans don’t always work out.
I humbly suggest a shift in how we see things. Instead of thinking in terms of resolutions, I will be setting my New Year’s Intentions. These are ways of thinking and seeing I want to embody in the new year. These are ways that I hope to change the way I see the world, not necessarily concrete actions. Intentions are, if you will, DUMB goals. They are diffuse, unstructured, marginal, and blithesome. They can not be tracked in an Excel spreadsheet.
This week I will be sharing my 5 Intentions for the new year. I hope that they will encourage you to think about your own intentions for 2021. On Friday (New Year’s Day), I will be asking you to share them for Friday Positivity. No pressure of course.
After all, shit happens.
Think globally, act locally.
The national news has sucked up a lot of my oxygen this year. There has been so much happening that it has been almost impossible to keep up. The year started with the impeachment of Donald Trump and his acquittal in the Senate. And that was the high water mark for sanity in 2020. There has been an out of control pandemic (and accompanying governmental failure), a summer of social justice protests, a Supreme Court nomination just weeks before a hugely consequential election, and a nauseating post-election period where the president of the United States has laid waste to every norm of governing and common decency in sight. And lingering over it all, like a noxious gas, has been Donald Trump. I spent way too much of 2020 worried about what this execrable human being thinks and does.
The one thing that I have come to realize is that our country isn’t unique and it isn’t special. In fact, most of the world deals with this kind of chaos on a regular basis. My mistake was in thinking that somehow we were special. We aren’t. Because I thought we were somehow special, I paid more attention to our country and missed the rest of the world. And it is a big world. With lots happening. To solve our problems, it will take all of us, all dealing with our localized challenges, to come together to work on big stuff anyway. In 2021 I want to focus more on the big stuff. Stuff like climate change, global migration, global health risks, and the global struggle against misinformation that threatens us all.
While my focus gets wider, I intend for my actions to get smaller. I spent Election Day (and days afterwards) paying attention to election returns in counties I had never heard of in states I had never been to. I was worrying myself sick (literally) over stuff I had absolutely no control over. No ability to influence or affect. I am not wasting any more time worrying about places where I have no connection and can make no difference.
I will be focusing my efforts on the places where I can help. Local issues, local work, local people. I will worry about Raleigh and DC insofar as they affect where I live and what happens here. The rest can sort itself out. I am gonna focus on home for a while. Spend money supporting local businesses. Advocate for local issues. Be a part of making this place better. I have done a lot of that over the years, but there is always more work to do.
Think globally. Act locally. I have set my intention.
Renew my relationship with my body.
One of my favorite websites is Reddit. It is kind of like the island of misfit toys of the Internet. There are all kind of groups dedicated to sharing things about their passions. If you can think of it, there is definitely a subreddit for it. One of my favorite of these smaller groups, or subreddits, is one called Old School Cool. People post pictures there of celebrities, themselves, or their parents or grandparents, from back in the day, being cool. For instance, I could post this picture of my grandfather when he was in the Navy in WWII:
The idea of the subreddit is to be reminded that at one point we were all young and cool and very hot.
I know it may seem difficult to believe for those who have met me in person, or watch me eat a whole pizza by myself (every pizza is a personal pizza if you apply yourself), but I used to be fit. And I don’t just mean in shape. I mean in very good shape. I was an Army Master Fitness Trainer, and a certified instructor for both Army Combatives and the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program. I ran the Army 10 miler every year. I earned the maximum score on my physical fitness test for over a decade. I could run 4 miles in 25 minutes and not break a sweat.
These days I sweat just thinking about running 4 miles. That’s why cars were invented. So people didn’t have to walk.
As I have thought about the changes in my body, and my relationship to it, I was struck by something. When I was at my very best physically, I was at my worst mentally. I could run fast, but I had no control of my emotions. I could do pushups all day, but I was still angry all the time. I could push myself on long road marches, but I couldn’t push myself to confront my own demons. As good as I looked on the outside, I was devouring myself from the inside. I was in touch with my body, but not my spirit.
Over the last decade or so, that flipped. I have been on an incredible journey of emotional and psychological healing and growth. I have found lasting recovery, and a durable sense of self. I love myself for the first time maybe ever. And love myself enough that the things that happen outside of me do not threaten it. And it is an amazing place to be. For the first time in almost 50 years on earth, I have some internal peace. Not every moment, because that doesn’t really happen for anyone. We all have bad days. But mostly, I am good.
But as I have gotten in touch with my spirit, I have neglected my body. It is like I didn’t have the capacity to do both, so I just chose to do one. And that is something I would like to do differently.
Two things can be true at once. I can be in touch with my body and my spirit at the same time. Because of that intend to be more mindful about the way that I approach my physical well being this year. I will try to focus as much on it as I do keeping my mind and spirit in order - by doing a little bit each day.
I will renew my relationship with my body. I have set my intention.
Make fiction great again.
I majored in English in college. Well, that’s not entirely true. I majored in sociology and English. At my college, it only took 9 classes to be considered an English major, so double majors with English were fairly common. My very best college semester was when I took 3 lit courses and 2 sociology courses. I basically spent 4 months reading and it was great. I mean, I spent 4 years reading, only most of the time I didn’t read what I was supposed to be reading when I was supposed to read it. But that’s another post.
I loved fiction and literature. It had been one of my escapes when I was a kid. It was always nice to find myself in a world that was very different than the one where I lived which was usually pretty unpleasant. Stories became a way of understanding that there were worlds beyond all that.
As I got older, I started to read fiction less and less. I read a lot of military history while I was in the military, especially after Iraq and Afghanistan, trying to better understand where I had been and why. When I began my journey of personal healing after my suicide attempt I read a lot of philosophy and theology as I struggled with big questions of identity and meaning. I indulged my wide ranging and constantly shifting interests and I read a whole lot of nonfiction about everything you can imagine from politics, to critical race theory, to the history of hiking in America. Really.
It has all been very educational. And. I miss my stories.
I miss reading them. I miss writing them. I have written a lot of profoundly shitty fiction over the years. And I am going to write more.
This year, it is my intention to read and write more fiction. I don’t have a reading list (feel free to make suggestions), just an intention. And intention is enough for now. Plus I get to get books and that is always fun.
Mainly I just want to feel lost in stories again. Not because I am trying to avoid my reality, but because I want to enhance it. I want to think thoughts and feel feelings without necessarily having to live through any more drama myself. And I can’t think of a better way to do that than a good story.
This year I will make fiction great again. I have set my intention.
Justin and I spend a lot of time at the Museum of Life and Science in Durham. There are lots of things to do there and, even though we visit a lot, there are some things that we still haven’t done.
One of the things that makes the museum so special is that is like a different place every time we visit. Some days we ride the train and visit the butterflies. Some days we spend our entire visit in the space section. Some days he wants to stay outside in the big tree house and wade in the creek. All through the different areas of the museum are sign’s with the motto “know wonder.”
The signs have the kind of ubiquity that makes something invisible. We are so surrounded by amazing things that we lose the ability to see them. This is actually a neurological adaptation. Our brains are constantly looking for shortcuts. And when something becomes familiar, our brains simply more it to the background. Have you ever cooked Brussels sprouts or some other particularly pungent food? You are cooking and you don’t really think about the smell. But if you step outside the kitchen and then walk back in... BAM! The smell hits you. You don’t smell it while you are cooking - you go nose blind - because your brain simply moves that information to the background.
Our brains do the same thing with other stimuli too. We have friends (or maybe even partners) that become so predictable and so familiar that we start to take them for granted. There are technologies and conveniences that we just assume will always be there and always work, to the point that we are shocked and frustrated when they don’t.
Think about smart phones. Statistics suggest most of us have them. And we have become so used to them that we have moved past taking them for granted and are now often resentful of them. We lose sight of the fact that an iPhone is a miraculous device. Think about it. You are carrying - in your pocket - a device that can access your banking information, tell you when your flight leaves, what route to take to avoid traffic, what the weather will be like next Tuesday, and keep you on time for your next appointment. It is a fully functional multimedia studio that allows you to create professional quality movies and photographs in mere moments. Oh, and you can use it to call people too.
We are surrounded by miracles so common that we have stopped seeing them. We don’t really know wonder. “Know wonder” is a pretty subversive message when you think about it. It asks us to do something that our culture, even our very brains, try to get us to NOT do.
I get glimpses of wonder with Justin at the museum. He gets excited every time we go about something - even things he has seen dozens of times now. He always squeals when he hears the train whistle. It is always exciting for him. Every visit feels fresh and new to him, and I enjoy that he enjoys it so much.
A week or so ago (around Christmas), Lizzie said something pretty profound. She said that, when you think about it, every time you do something you are doing it for the first time. Even when you do something again, it is the first time you have done that thing twice. For that matter, she went on to say, even when you do something twice, they are still different. They happen at different times and in different circumstances. Really, she said, every time you do something, it is the only time you will ever do it.
This year I intend to try to remember that every moment is unique, and that it is the only time that moment will exist in that way. Ever. I will strive to know that in that moment there is something special, and that in that moment something will happen that will never happen again. I will try not to let things drift to the back of my mind. Even the smell of Brussels sprouts.
I will try to know wonder. I have set my intention.
Here is a brief window into the process for this newsletter. I track the 5 things that I write about - the week I am on and the upcoming week - on a whiteboard with post it notes. When I first put up the post it notes for this week, I put up 4. There were 4 things I knew I wanted to write about. 4 intentions I knew would be on the list.
The 5th post it I put a question mark on. I wasn’t sure what my 5th intention would be, but I figured it would come to me as it got closer to time to write about it. At the beginning of this week I was like... ummmm... okay. Really need something here. Only I still didn’t have the 5th intention. I decided to think it over some more.
As this week went on, the question mark sat there. And it started to grow on me. At first, I was annoyed. It’s 5 things, not 4. I didn’t feel like I could have a 4 part list. I really wanted a 5th intention. But as I thought about it, I realized that the question mark WAS my intention.
I started this week talking about DUMB goals. Well I can’t think of a single goal more DUMB than to say “I dunno.” We live in a world that tells us that we have to have everything figured out. That we have to make plans, set goals, have a vision board.
How many of you are doing what you planned to be doing when 2020 started?
Did you plan to work from home? Wear a mask? Homeschool your kid? Did you expect to go months without seeing friends or going to church? Did you expect that concerts would stop being a thing? Or the movies? We have been shown time and time and time again in 2020 the truth behind the old saying that if you want to hear God laugh, make a plan.
I have no idea what my 5th intention is. This space will be intentionally left blank. Maybe I will revisit it, maybe I won’t, but either way I resolve to not give a fuck. Life is hard y’all. We all need a little flexibility, a little give, a little slack.
I don’t know what next week will look like. Much less next month. I am focused on trying to remain in the moment I am in. I will walk the mile I am walking. The rest will work itself out.
The comma stays because it is okay to not know. It is okay to be unsure. It is okay to change your mind, find a new path, and make a new friend. Shit happens. And that is the miracle of life.
I will be open to whatever may happen. And I will adjust accordingly. And no matter what happens, I will be mindful that something good can come of it, because all things are more than one thing.
I have made my intentions.
Happy New Year y’all.
As always, thank you for reading. Be well friends. If you are not a yet a subscriber and would like to get the 5 things (and a whole lot of other good stuff) during the week, I can’t encourage you enough to become a subscriber.
See you all soon. Keep pounding the rock.