I haven’t made it to the stroke of midnight awake on New Year’s Eve for at least the past decade, and during my years working as a hospital chaplain, I never thought twice about offering to cover the New Year’s Day on-call shift. Unlike Christmas, Thanksgiving, or Easter, I don’t have special traditions or memories associated with the holiday, so I can’t see staying up late for it or avoiding work on it.
And yet, I have a minor obsession with crafting New Year’s resolutions and partaking in various practices that help me orient myself for the upcoming calendar year. I regularly choose a word for the year, make an annual bucket list, and create goals related to my spiritual, physical, and emotional well-being. I also select a quote or Scripture passage to memorize and let shape my year.
Last year, I decided to commit to memory a long-time favorite section of the 15th chapter of the book of Sirach:
Set before you are fire and water;
to whatever you choose, stretch out your hand.
Before everyone are life and death,
whichever they choose will be given them.
Little did I know, back in January, what a tumultuous year 2020 would be, and now that I’m in the midst of particularly difficult times, I’m grateful that I was drawn to these verses back on that New Year’s Day. To me, they say: “life is full of good and bad, but no matter what happens to us, we have a choice in how we respond to it.” And then they offer an invitation to make choices — to stretch out our hands — to the things that will give us life: to things that will help us grow, that will energize us, that will open us up to the presence of God in the world and that will help us share the love of God with our neighbors.
Here are three choices that I’m making these days, motivated by the 15th chapter of Sirach, that are giving me life:
I choose to ask myself one important question at the end of each day.
In his Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius of Loyola describes a technique of prayerful reflection on the events of the day. This reflective exercise prods us to recognize where and how God may have been working in the highs and lows of our past 24 hours. While his Examen walks through five steps, I’ve recently taken to asking myself one examen-inspired question at the end of each day: Did the love I exhibited today outweigh any grumpiness that I exuded?
I started this practice after a series of unfortunate weeks during which I found myself snapping at my husband, rolling my eyes while on work-related phone calls, complaining to anyone who would listen, and making negative comments during Zoom meetings. I realized that I had become a total grump and that I was hurting myself, my family, my co-workers, and my friends. In short, I was not making choices that gave me, or anyone around me, life. Something needed to change. So I drew a little grid with thirty boxes on the monthly page of my planner, and I committed to checking off a box for each day that my love outweighed my ill-humor. Knowing that I would evaluate myself at the end of the day, I was much more inclined to make loving choices, and I found that as I exhibited more love, I felt an increase in peace and gratitude as well.
I choose to spend time playing with my toddler every day with no distractions.
My 18-month-old daughter has a whole array of words, mannerisms, and preferred activities that I find hilarious and delightful, including her propensity to call anyone under the age of 10 a baby and her favorite morning activity of sitting in the passenger seat of our parked car. And yet, I recently noticed that I reach for my phone, a magazine, or my meal-planning notebook anytime I spend time with her. My tendency to distract myself from our time together troubled me; so I decided to spend at least 30 fully-present minutes with my daughter each day. This decision — a commitment to share intentional and distraction-free time with my child — has had two significant impacts in my life: First, it has heightened my sensitivity to the presence of God in my life as I join my toddler in her wonder and awe at the created world. Closely examining a flower that she has picked and thrust under my nose beats scrolling social media any day. Second, it has given me the opportunity for a deeper connection with one of the beings I love most in the world.
I choose to educate myself.
With our nation finally attending to the murders of people of color and our communities finally acknowledging systemic injustices and grappling with social sins, I started to question the role that I, as a white person, play in furthering racism. It’s humbling and horrifying. It’s also easy to become paralyzed into inaction with feelings of guilt and uncertainty. What is the next best step? Instead of becoming paralyzed, I decided to start taking action with one small step this summer: I made consuming media related to race-relations a goal. I’ve bookmarked Ibram X. Kendi’s anti-racist reading list and Sarah Sophie Flicker and Alyssa Klein’s Anti-Racism Resources on my computer, and I am choosing to turn to these when selecting my next book, podcast, or article with the intention of expanding my own life, breaking down racist tendencies and stultifying biases, and replacing thoughtless habits with life-giving objectives. It is a small step towards a life that more fully honors the lives of others.
Even amidst the challenges of today, we are given countless opportunities to choose — like the author of Sirach describes — between fire and water, life and death. My three choices help me find life and contribute to life in small but meaningful ways.
Originally published October 5, 2020.