For the past week or so I've been hearing about how all of my friends and family and acquaintances plan to improve their lives over the next year. There are health-related resolutions, career goals, and ideas for improving relationships. Maybe this will be the year they finally lose those last stubborn pounds. Maybe they'll finish that home renovation, or get their financial house in order. Maybe they'll get to the gym more than once every six months.
This time of year is also filled with self-reflection on the twelve months just past. What made it memorable, what lessons did we learn, are there any regrets?
I think that self-improvement is good; we should always be trying to be the best people we can be. I know that in my own life I need to make a stronger commitment to health and fitness. As much as I love candy, I probably don't need to eat quite so much of it, and I should spend more time active, less time on the couch.
But is that how I'll measure the success of a year? Of my life? Unlikely. And I don't know many people who would, although we certainly spend a lot of time talking about how our resolutions will make us better people living more fulfilling lives.
I've spent the time between Christmas and New Year's in the house I grew up in, visiting with family. I realized last night that there are pictures on the wall where my Mom is the same age that I am now. This means, of course, that the experiences that my kids are having now aren't unlike my memories from visiting my grandparents when I was their age. It's reinforced to me - yet again - of what matters when one really gets down to it, and what resolutions are actually worth making.
This point was driven home by a letter that my dad showed us. It was written in 1977 by a man, Peter, who spent time on my grandparents' farm on the Canadian prairie in the years leading up the Depression. He had recently arrived from Germany; my grandparents were ethnic Germans who'd arrived from Russia just twenty years earlier. He had no one and they took him in. At the time, my grandma was not yet thirty and had six young children. When Peter saw that his presence was taking away from the precious resources needed for the family to survive on the farm, he made the difficult decision to leave.
This was way before the internet - even telephones - made international communication as easy as calling down the street. Peter didn't know where he would end up (New York City, as it turned out). The letter was addressed to The Postmaster at Primate, SK, the population of which was never more than 200 people. The Postmistress opened up the letter and took it to my dad, saying, "I think this belongs to your family."
The letter was written by its 73-year-old author because "Let it be said, that at this juncture of a man's life, one is apt to let his thoughts wander back through the past because there is little else of consequence, now that life has come around almost full circle."
He felt the need to contact "those good and wonderful people", "A close-knit family which dispensed love and kindness ever so generously not only within that family, but also to friends, neighbors and even strangers as well."
As my dad said, It's one thing to know certain things to be true from your own experience within a family, but to hear it from someone outside the circle, so-to-speak, is particularly gratifying. Within two weeks of my dad getting that letter, Peter was on his way from New York to our small prairie town. Even with as little as they had, my grandparents made a difference in the life of this man. It is by grace that my Grandma was alive when that letter arrived and for Peter's visit to know just how much.
So this year I might get in shape. Maybe I'll finally hang the pictures currently leaning against the wall, but to me that's not what's really important. While I don't expect to take in any strangers, I think that there are ways to live with the same spirit of generosity that my grandparents embodied for that young man. I can be the same kind of parent as my Mom was in that picture on our wall and hope that my kids have the same kind of fond memories of being with their grandparents as I do.
My New Year's resolution is to live a life that has a positive answer to this question:
How will my presence be remembered by those I've had the good fortune to know?
And the circle will continue.