With Advent and Christmas behind us, it seems very natural to look towards the New Year with a sense of “starting anew”. It’s so easy to get into the “New Year’s Resolutions” mode – and I’m not entirely against it. Sometimes we need an excuse to kickstart a more healthy diet or better exercise habits, and if the start of the New Year is that excuse, so be it! But I guess we shouldn’t have such huge expectations of ourselves that we’re shattered when things don’t go quite the way we’d planned. I think one of our New Year’s Resolutions should be to not be so hard on ourselves, and to laugh more at our slip-ups and moments of weakness.
What we also need, as we start the New Year, is hope. If I want to be a hopeful person, then I must first be more forgiving – of others and also of myself. When I set the bar impossibly high and give no room for anything but perfection, I'm destined to lose hope pretty quickly. I think it's really important to be smart and realistic about our expectations and our limitations, seeing our humanness through the loving, merciful eyes of God. A helpful analogy might be how a good parent has realistic expectations of their young child – not expecting perfection, but hoping for progress, all the while knowing that progress very often comes from making mistakes and learning from them.
Vaclav Havel, Czech playwright, poet and first president of the Czech Republic after the Velvet Revolution against communist rule, once said, “Hope is not the same as happiness that things are going well. Hope is an ability to work for something because it is good.” That’s a nice blueprint for hope – working for something because it is good. Notice there are no words like “success” or even “accomplishment” in this definition. Hope is the direction you are pointed, the road you are walking, the experience you are pushing through…towards something good. Hope seems to have three close companions: sacrifice, suffering and struggle. But hope is what makes life worth living.
I’m coming more and more to the conclusion that “something good” doesn’t have to be “something big”. Yes, it’s thrilling to be part of a large endeavour that’s making a difference in the world. But as Mother Teresa said, “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.” Making a point of welcoming a new neighbour on the block. Taking time to ask the widow sitting alone at church how things are going. Bringing some food to a sick friend. Asking that person whom you find slightly annoying to join you for a walk in the park, so you can get to know them better and maybe improve your relationship. It might seem like these small touches of goodness – of generosity of spirit and selflessness – go unnoticed and don’t count for much in the grand scheme of things. But in that paradoxical way of the Kingdom of God, it seems that they count for more than we can imagine. They start ripples in the fabric of life that flow forwards and backwards, affecting the giver as well as the recipient.
We went to the movie The Hobbit over the Christmas holidays, and being big Tolkien fans, we loved it. My favorite line in the movie was uttered by Gandalf: “Saruman believes that it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. I have found it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folks that keep the darkness at bay…small acts of kindness and love.”
Yes, I might start exercising more, and stop ingesting so much junk food in 2013. I’m also going to try to make a point of keeping my messy office a little tidier, because it’s driving me crazy. But maybe we should also purposefully keep our radar up for those opportunities to perform “small acts of kindness and love” – and then be brave enough to do them. Maybe we should add these words of St. Francis to our list of New Year’s resolutions: “We have been called to heal wounds, to unite what has fallen apart, and to bring home those who have lost their way.”
Therein lies hope.