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Bishop Mike Harrison has some advice on making New Year resolutions

The tinsel’s gone, the baubles are down, the Xmas tree is sticking out of the wheelie bin…and we’re staring at more lockdown conditions into the early New Year.

You might be forgiven for feeling a bit flat post-Christmas, or the end of a holiday. And of course with grey chilly weather to reflect the mood, economic instability and the uncertainty of the next few months in view, there’s more to give us a sense that the party, such as it was, is over.

At moments like this we can be tempted to think of our lives as a bit colourless, mundane, small-town, but that would be a big mistake to make or so the mystics tell us.

Bishop of Dunwich Mike Harrison (43784846)
Bishop of Dunwich Mike Harrison (43784846)

Our lives the mystics tell us come laden with richness, even after a holiday, but we are not sufficiently present to what is there. Let me give you an example of what I mean.

The poet Rainer Marie Rilke at the height of his fame was once contacted by a young man from a small provincial town. The young man expressed his admiration for Rilke’s poetry and told him that he envied him, envied his life in the big city, and envied a life so full of richness and insight. He went on to describe how his own life was uninteresting, provincial and too dull to inspire insight and poetry.

Rilke’s answer was unsympathetic. He told the young man something to this effect: “If your life seems poor to you, then tell yourself that you are not poet enough to see and call forth its riches. There are no uninteresting places, no lives that aren’t full of the stuff for poetry. What makes for a rich life is not so much what is contained in each moment, since all moments contain what is timeless, but sensitive insight and presence to that moment.”

There’s something here about making sure we’re present, present to today in all its uniqueness, riches, even beauty. One habit I heard, to stay in today, was to consider when something comes into our mind which feels overwhelming, that causes you to worry into the future or regret into the past, is to turn it into a question and add today at the end.

So for example if you’re worrying about your teenager leaving college– “is my teenager leaving college today?” If so, then the next question is “what do I need to do right now as relates to this concern?” If not then the question becomes “what is one next right step I can take to prepare for this leaving?” And so too with other concerns.

Trouble is, this is a time of year when the mind turns to looking back and looking forward – and with a view on the past year people begin to contemplate New Year’s resolutions.

The statistics suggest we shouldn’t really bother. Apparently over 80% of such resolutions are broken by the end of January. Nevertheless where there’s life there’s hope, and perhaps it’s a mark of our human hopefulness that we still look to turning over a new leaf in different ways.

Apparently the most popular resolutions haven’t changed much in recent years. The top ten appear to be: exercise more, lose weight, eat more healthily, get organized, learn a new skill or hobby, live life to the fullest, save more money (or spend less money), quit smoking (or drinking (too much), spend more time with family and friends, travel more.

Maybe a different kind of resolution is worth considering – related to the habit above and a version of which advice is found in as diverse sources as Martin Luther King Junior, Alcoholics Anonymous and Mother Teresa.

That is to cultivate the habit to “do the next right thing”. That might mean for example, being patient, or grateful or forgiving, just for the next ten minutes. Or it might mean listening before we speak, or offering a smile or a nod, or simply being present to someone without an agenda, at this time, this moment, this period.

And maybe think of it as a habit to develop rather than a resolution once broken never repaired.

Funnily enough most of the time Jesus in his interactions didn’t give people a life plan, a vision or a five year list of resolutions – rather people like a leper, a paralytic, Jairus and his wife and others were given instruction by Jesus about what to do next - and only next.

The Right Rev Mike Harrison, Bishop of Dunwich, is writing Bishop Martin’s column while Martin is on holiday.