When I was a kid, I always had an Etch A Sketch. Honestly, I’m not sure why. I sucked at it. I didn’t have the patience or the dexterity to create anything of quality on that silver-gray screen. I tried often enough, but I couldn’t manage to draw much more than squiggles and odd shapes. Still, what I always loved about Etch A Sketch was the ease of starting over. Lift the screen, give it a hearty shake, and the slate was blank again, ready for my next attempt.
As it happens, that is also what I love about New Year’s. I have always seen the turn of the calendar as an opportunity to give my routine, my goals, my emotional approach to life a hearty shake, and build them again from scratch. Yes, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but it does capture the spirit of how I approach the holiday. Last year’s achievements and disappointments are done — I don’t want them to be either a source of discouragement or cause for complacency. I start each year with a blank screen. That’s the goal at least.
In the past, I made resolutions, an exercise I eventually decided was rather useless. Better, I decided, to set out goals and aspirations, to keep practices and habits that were working for me, and at least attempt to jettison those that weren’t. This may sound like semantics — what’s the difference between “resolutions” on the one hand and “goals and aspirations” on the other? To me, I guess, it’s the difference between attempting to draw something on paper with pen and ink, and making the attempt on an ever-erasable plastic screen.
With all this in mind, I begin today a series of posts that will span the next few weeks. The general idea of the posts is to answer a question that is deceptive in its simplicity: What matters to me?
Over the course of a year, or ten, or fifty, we pick up . . . stuff. I’m not speaking just of physical things — indeed, that sort of stuff is really the least of it. I’m referring to tasks; habits; pastimes and hobbies; ambitions and fears; passions, loves, and things we find repellent; professional goals and responsibilities; personal relationships; chores and obligations; etc. In short, anything and everything that consumes our time, feeds or saps our energy and our emotional strength, informs our decision-making at home or at work or in between. Everything.
As I say, this is going to take a few weeks to get through. But I think the exercise will be worthwhile for me and, I hope, informative and perhaps even inspiring for you.
Today, I begin with a big picture approach — the 10,000 foot view, as it were. And I do so by focusing on two examples of stuff.
As I take stock of 2022 and look forward to 2023, I see things in my life that I have neglected and others that I have focused on with too much intensity. I am a musician and a photographer. I take much joy in playing my guitars and taking my camera out into the field to capture images. That is, I usually do. As I reflect on the past year, which has been an emotionally challenging one, I find that I have neglected these hobbies. Too often over the past twelve months, I have gone days at a time without playing any music at all. I have gone weeks at a time without taking photos. And this is about more than leaving expensive equipment to gather dust. These pursuits feed my soul, allowing me to create in ways that are entirely separate from my profession. I need to do these things. I know I do. They keep me centered, happy; they bring me peace. My emotional health depends in part on my commitment to doing these things. Just as I wouldn’t go weeks without eating fresh fruits and vegetables, I also shouldn’t ignore my creative passions.
At the same time, I have allowed anger to creep into my everyday life. I harbor resentments — some personal, some professional, some related to circumstances that I’m really not at liberty to discuss publicly. And really, the roots of my anger are beside the point. Too often, as I take my morning walks, I find myself fixating on wrongs and the righteous anger I feel in response. I imagine finding and taking the opportunity to speak my mind to those who have hurt me or those I love. (That really is as far as my imaginings go. I’m not a violent person, but I know the power of words. And I know that I’m quite capable of cutting someone to the bone with a well-turned phrase.) The point, though, is that this anger, and these imagined conversations do me no good. They keep my focus on my grudges; they allow me to wallow in my bitterness.
Music and photography have been fundamental elements of my happiness for decades. Wouldn’t I be better off if I again found time to make those activities central to my daily existence? Of course I would.
Hostility toward those who have angered me matters far less to me than love for my family and my friends. Wouldn’t I be calmer, more content, if I focused my emotional energy on the latter? Of course I would.
What matters to me? What matters to you?
These are, I believe foundational questions. The things we care about — the things we love, the things from which we draw strength and joy — these are what define who we are and how we live. At least they ought to. As I navigate the coming year, I wish to be guided by those things that bring me happiness rather than those that take me to dark places.
Deceptively simple, right? And yet, it takes work and careful thought.
More in posts to come. For now, have a great week.