Starting Over by George Merrill

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In my first attempts to write a personal essay appropriate to the New Year, I fell into a trap. As most of you know about writers, their first drafts are awful. That’s’ why it takes so many rewrites to get it to work and if not, at least get it representative of what an author truly feels – not just some attempt at posturing.

I began with a theme in mind. The theme was “starting over.” I thought the new year is one kind of ‘starting over’ and starting over is also an old Buddhist teaching about how we can skillfully deal with our efforts to, well, start over. It specifically refers to deepening our spirituality simply by learning how to not quit in discouragement, but to just start over.

The teaching guides me in ways to gain the riches of the spirit and self-control by minimizing aspects of my life that work against it. This always requires a change in how I normally go about things. Typically – and New Year’s Eve is one good example – after the first drink, I will swear to either give up something or to embark on some new discipline. The giving up invariably involves certain foods and uses of alcohol or tobacco; chocolate is a big one as is resolving to abstain from certain disagreeable habits like flipping the bird at pokey drivers creeping down the St. Michaels Road. Having only two lanes makes such people really irritating. Vowing to exercise regularly is another frequent resolution.

New Year’s resolutions don’t last. There’s good reasons for that. They’re not undertaken for substantial reasons, or to say it differently, they are undertaken for egoistic motives. Just why I choose to forswear some particular food or drink, or even undertake to change other habits is frequently driven by negative motives rather than an aspiration to more noble estates. Topping the list is a desire to lose weight and look good. ‘Because I am fat’ becomes an issue of pride more often than it is a concern for good health. In fact, I’d offer the thought that most New Year’s Eve resolutions I’ve undertaken are to prove something to myself. I long to prove that I possess strength of character and resolute will. I am not, as I secretly fear, a wuss or wimp. I have character, determination.

I will own that there are people who by sheer force of will can alter their undesirable traits, but I would not want to live with them. I notice they remarry a lot. Maybe they don’t smoke or drink or eat fatty foods, run every morning and drink ten glasses of water daily but the very undesirable character traits that led them into bad habits in the first place, remain. They’re not overindulging anymore, they’re self-righteous and know everything, instead.

But back to my problem in writing an essay appropriate to the new year.

As I started writing, I began thinking about the year as I’ve experienced it since last January. The trap: I just grew more and more angry. In a snit, I typed away furiously about how we’re being jerked around by a flood of mindless tweets with which the White House floods America’s cyberspace; I thought of a federal judge charged with pedophilia whose Christian constituents defended him by comparing him to Joseph, the father of the Holy Family. After all, Joseph dated Mary, Jesus mother and Mary was well Joseph’s junior. So, what’s the problem? It’s beyond crazy, that’s the problem.

And then I remembered the president of a Christian College who encouraged his students to carry a concealed weapon so they might be prepared to shoot Muslims. I felt as though I was flying over the cuckoos’ nest. Felt, hell, I was flying over a cuckoos’ nest.

At lunch, I mentioned to my wife, Jo, how worked up I’d been while writing. As I told her she assumed a look, like I’ve seen on the faces of those who’d just eaten a bad oyster.

“What?” I said defensively.

“Why rehash what everyone knows anyway? Is there something helpful, something different instead that you can say that might help us live through this with some dignity and hope?”
So much for St’ Paul’s admonitions that wives defer to their husbands. It’s a new ball game.

That’s just what the last year has been instructing us, instructing me. It is a new ball game.
My challenge is to hold still to the ideal that how we play the game is as important or more so than winning. The trap I fell into was identifying with the aggressor. Ranting against the absurdities of this administration is simply doing the same thing as I claim to be denouncing. I’m just firing off another round of mindless tweets.

In situations where people have been treated abusively or contemptuously, there is a tendency to assume the vicious qualities of the perpetrators. In short, I want to unleash on others, what they have, or I imagine they have, visited on me. It’s one variation on revenge.

Starting over is a significant discipline in Buddhist spirituality. It recognizes the deep desire to do something good, be something worthwhile, but invariably to slip back into old habits. It’s discouraging. The tendency is to be self-critical, and feel inept in meeting the challenge. If we slip often enough, eventually we just quit.

I want to start over again this next year by attempting to be as wise as a serpent, but gentle as a dove. I mean by that looking directly at the evils and absurdities that surround me daily, but with a clear eye and gentle spirit. And if I get riled up and want to go on a new rant, just remember to go back and start over. I then keep my focus on what’s important for me to be about and not remain stuck and focused on the provocateurs.

There’s a phrase that I’ve known for years. One part is from psalm 37. The latter part I don’t know but together they make the point beautifully:
“Fret not for the evil doer, lest thou be moved to do evil.”
May we all gain the grace to live wisely and courageously in the coming year. And, if we slip and fall into old ways, let’s just start over.

Blessings in the New Year.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist.  A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

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Letters to Editor

  1. Barbara Harrison says:

    It’ll preach.

  2. E J Libertini says:

    Thank you for your thoughtful words of wisdom.
    May your New Year be filled with joy and love.

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