I’ve been choosing one word to guide my year since 2013.
That first year was “release,” a time of letting go, and it was followed a year later by “enjoy.” The year I was meant to enjoy the life in front of me didn’t turn out that way exactly because I realized something along the way. And that led to my 2015 word, which was “whole.” That was a winding road full of unexpected twists, and at the end of the year I felt undone more than done, which I think was the whole point, pun intended.
Which brings us to 2016 and the year that is almost ended. My word this year was “present” and I always begin the year with high hopes.
My goal this year was to be more awake to the life right in front of me, to not distract myself all the time with escapist fiction or dulled senses. And this year, like it was for so many, was full of opportunity to feel deeply. And that is as painful as it sounds.
This year, I faced a multi-week back injury at the beginning of the year that reduced my world to one room of the house and counting the number of steps to the bathroom. I zoned out with Netflix because I literally couldn’t go anywhere, but I became more aware of my immediate surroundings. It was an unintentional introduction to being present.
For Lent, I took a break from reading fiction, which is too often an escape for me, and I had hard time going back to books that are purely entertaining and not challenging in some way. I still read fiction, but it’s different for me now.
In the middle of the year, my grandfather died, and I felt ALL THE GRIEF of loss. I cried like I’ve never cried before. Publicly. Unashamedly. There was a time when I might have tried to fight it. To hide the pain. But I let it go. I still am.
Then there was the election. And the war in Syria. And other people’s grief and loss. I felt it right along with them, sometimes crying for seemingly no reason but later pinpointing it to taking on others’ emotions.
One night, I clearly remember feeling so much sadness and loss, and I really wanted to drink a glass or two of wine to dull what I was feeling. But I chose not to. Instead, I let myself feel. And I was better for it.
Which leads me to the word I want to live for 2017.
See, this last feature of being present, this caring about other people’s pain and losses is something I still need to work on. Most of the time, I am so focused on my own troubles and problems that I turn off my caring for other people because I don’t think my heart can handle it.
What I learned from being present this year (and from seeing the movie Inside Out) is that feeling something–even sadness, even pain–is an important part of life.
I have long admired this quote by C.S. Lewis because I struggle with the eventual pain of loving and losing. It goes like this:
To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.
I don’t want my heart to harden because when it does, I become someone I hate. I have no pity or compassion for people. I reek of bitterness about my own circumstances in life. I shut down, like a turtle receding into its shell so nothing can hurt it.
That is not how I want to live life.
Knowing now what I do about what a year can bring, especially when I choose to focus on a word and how it will eventually change me, I am nervous and scared.
But the word I need this year, the only word that makes sense to me is this:
I have high expectations for myself and others, so I want to be tender, gracious with myself. I am learning to set high and challenging goals, yes, but to be kind to myself when I don’t meet those goals or take the steps easy as they come and to not beat myself up or call myself names. I can’t do it all. I can’t control it all. So, I need to be tender towards myself.
And I need to keep my heart on the soft side. It most certainly will get bruised. Maybe even punctured. But I’ve lived enough days with the impenetrable heart to know that loving and caring, even if it means losing and hurting, is worth more than a heart that feels nothing.
Hate is in excess these days. There are people and groups I want to hate because they are hateful. But more hate won’t solve anything. I wrestle with this, too. To be tender is not the same as “going soft,” though. I think certain behaviors, actions, beliefs, circumstances require a toughness. And I still want that to be there. But I don’t think I can be only tough. In fact, I think I need the toughness and the tenderness to work together. I’m sure I’ll have more to think about with that as the year progresses.
I just know that when my heart starts to solidify, which it started to do after the election, the tenderness is what saves me. When I’m anxious, being kind to others is an antidote. I can’t explain it, really, but I find it easier to be the opposite of whatever the prevailing emotion is. When shoppers are frantic and I’m anxious about joining them out in public, I remind myself to be patient and kind, and it helps me. When hate and fear spew from the TV, I throw myself into volunteer work with refugees and school children. It is tenderness in thinking of others and giving my time to them that keeps my rising anger and frustration from bubbling into a steaming outburst.
I don’t know what else I will learn about tenderness and being tender this year. But I know that I will learn about myself and God in the process. Because He, too, is tender, despite what we sometimes want to think.
Despite all the unexpected turns, I have not regretted this choice of focusing on one word for an entire year. It has changed me more than any New Year’s resolution ever has.
Won’t you give it a try this year? The word is totally personal to you and your circumstances, and sometimes it seems the word chooses me before I can choose it. Give it some thought. And let me know what you pick. It’s going to be a transformative year.