Cynics claim that the half-life of New Year’s resolutions is about three days. By February the good intentions hatched at Christmastime have wilted along with our decorative poinsettias.
While many such pledges are indeed doomed from the start, I began 2010 with a promising, fresh approach. Instead of vowing any type of direct behavior modification, I have found it helpful (and so far eminently doable) to make a pledge that highlights heightened awareness and appreciation (details below) rather than specific action. While this may sound like a classic cop-out, the truism that consciousness precedes all human action lends some encouragement. Perhaps my resolution will prepare and motivate me in some unforeseen way for practical measures in the future. To cite the best advertising mantra ever adopted by the New York State Lottery, “Hey, you never know.”
My pledge is a dual resolution. In the course of these 12 months, I promise to do a better job remembering two categories of people who tend to fall off my radar screen far too often for comfort.
The first groups I pledge to keep in mind are the desperately poor of our nation and our world. It may seem odd that amid today’s serious recession, with unemployment at 10 percent or more, such a vow is necessary at all. Yet, like so many Americans who live in relative comfort, my day-to-day experience is highly buffered from the brutal realities of grinding poverty. Working as I do on a college campus and spending many hours in comfortable offices, classrooms and libraries effectively shuts me off from the reality of unmet human needs.
One need not live in Beverly Hills or a gated suburban community to miss out on the struggles of low-income Americans. Living in any first-world setting insulates the most fortunate portion of humanity from the daily struggles for material sustenance endured by the vast majority of human-kind. News coverage of January’s earthquake in Haiti brought horrifying images of death and destruction to our eyes; but horrendous suffering is a constant presence in the global South, if only we have the stomach not to avert our attention from ongoing crises that unfold in slow motion.
The point of my New Year’s resolution is not to feel guilty about the human suffering I am missing, but to raise the level of cognizance that I do achieve. I might start by committing myself to keeping abreast of relief efforts in Haiti, even as public attention fades. Or to reading all the way to the end of the latest article describing the plight of the record 35 million Americans receiving food stamps. I might spend some time praying for benefit-eligible families and imagining the particular deprivations they face.
The second group that I resolve to be more cognizant of is the community of artists. Perhaps because of circumstances that led me to spend quite a bit of time in recent months with a variety of creative types, I realized as 2010 dawned how rarely I pause to appreciate the contribution of artists. Most people who specialize in bringing beauty to our world labor in obscurity and are never featured at major museums, concert halls or the Kennedy Center honors. People who curate exhibits, design buildings or household items with flair, embellish the Web sites we enjoy, mix the sound or write the scripts for our favorite films and programs—these are the artists whose creativity I pledge to admire more consciously this year.
By a stroke of serendipity, this pairing of concerns turns out to be reminiscent of the motto “Bread and Roses.” Originally a phrase from a poem published in 1911, “Bread and Roses” has become an evocative political slogan, adopted by trade unionists, especially women, for nearly a century. When workers express their aspiration for income adequate to afford not only the necessities of life but a measure of beauty as well, they remind everyone that the aesthetic is an essential aspect of life. Not by bread alone do we live. Committing to maintain awareness of the plight of the materially poor as well as the contributions of the artistically accomplished is a step forward in the humanization of social relations—and the humanization of me in 2010, if I manage to uphold my pair of resolutions.