New learning and giving commitments make a noble new year

by Phil Burgess, Unabridged from the Life section of the Annapolis Capital, Sunday December 27, 2015

Unabridged from my Bonus Years column in the Lifestyle section of The Sunday Capital, Annapolis, Maryland

Last week I was sitting at a table in “my section” of the Double T Diner on West Street, one of my favorite hangouts.  It’s a sort of “not-too-hot/not-too-cold” Goldilocks setting – not too fancy and yet many steps up from Burger King where they also have tables.  And besides, Double T has a senior menu and a wonderful wait staff!

A few minutes later, a mother with her young family of two girls and a boy – probably ages four through eight – filled a four-top table close by.  After they ordered four hot chocolates, the young ones reached into their backpacks to remove writing paper and pencils.
The youngest was only scribbling.  But the other two were seriously at work, writing a list.  They talked to their mom and to each other as they wrote and erased and wrote some more.  The engagement with their mother and with each other was heart-warming, but I wondered, “What they were writing and talking about?”

So, when I finished, I packed up, put on a smile and stopped by their table, asking, “What are you guys doing today?”  They looked at me with some suspicion (except for the youngest, who quickly and proudly showed me his scribbles) and then looked at their mom, as if to ask, “Who is this guy?  Can we talk to him?”  Their mother “answered” with a smile and a positive nod of the head – as if to say, “Remember, always be nice to old people.”

So, we talked and talked – for at least five minutes.  They were all three animated and eager to share their writing.  Their mom just sat there, letting her children speak.  When they all talked at once, eager to share their thinking, their mother would interject, “One at a time.”  Other than that she sat quietly with an approving smile on her face as her kids “shared” with this new friend.

It turns out the two girls who knew their ABCs and cursive, were writing their new year’s resolutions.  They obviously had some coaching because the older one objected to the younger’s resolution “to be good next year.”

“You can’t say that.  Mom says you have to say ‘how’ you will be good.  Like, ‘I will make my bed every day’ or ‘I will dry the dishes every night.'”

“OK, OK, I understand,” intoned the younger.  And, together, they worked on their resolutions for 2016 as I bid my farewell with a “Happy New Year!”

As I left, I was thinking about the good mother who was obviously teaching her children the value of discipline and resolve in a purpose-driven life – and how to create and communicate without a smart phone or iPad!

I also thought about the annual resolutions most of us – more than half of all Americans, according to most surveys – make to guide our journey through the coming year.  Most of the time, like the little girls, we make highly-generalized vows to improve:  To lose weight, work harder, get up earlier, go to gym more faithfully, spend money more frugally, save more.

Sometimes we get very specific – to reconcile with an old friend, make a new friend, learn Spanish, fast one day a week, sing in the choir at church, take a vacation to the Holy Land, create a family budget, join a fitness center.  Research suggests this approach is more likely to get results.

Stephen Duneier, an investment manager who helps his clients by using cognitive science to improve performance, has also applied this approach to forming New Year’s resolutions.  His approach is based on the fact that how we spend the majority of our time is largely set in stone. “What differentiates one year from the next is what happens on the margin. It is in those moments that we define our lives.”  Examples: The year we married, came to faith, experienced the birth of a child, gained weight, bought a new home, etc.

“As big as these events are, they all exist on the margin of our lives, where every day we eat, work, sleep, watch TV and relieve our bowels in an almost rhythmic pattern.  It is the marginal stuff, the things we don’t do regularly, that requires effort and attention.  It makes us uncomfortable, challenges and rewards us far more than what happens in the bulk of our time.”

Duneier first applied this idea of changing his behavior on the margin in 2012 in an exercise he called “12 for 2012.”  He divided his 12 vows into “learning resolutions” and “giving resolutions.”

His learning resolutions included to play the drums, ballroom dance, use social media and master the unicycle.

His giving resolutions were to help build homes (as in Habitat for Humanity), donate blood, adopt a puppy and give books to the book drop.

Then he set up a blog to share his progress – a good move because research shows that more than three-out-of-four who succeed attribute their success to the accountability and encouragement that flows from letting others know their intentions.

What about those in their bonus years?

I have vivid recollections from my younger years – when I was in my 20s and 30s – of going on “learning” vacations and seeing older people.  I would think to myself, “Why would an older person, a luminary, want to experience all this stuff when they are on a short string as far as life on this earth is concerned?”

Obviously, I don’t think that way these days.

Now that I’m a luminary I too continue to hunger for new experiences.  I now understand why so many “old people” take advantage of “eco-tourism” opportunities, form book clubs and even work.  As we grow longer in the tooth, we should hope and pray never to lose our curiosity and our need to work, improve and learn – or in the words of C.S. Lewis, “to irrigate the desert.”

The idea of life-long engagement is brought to life by a story told of US Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. (1841-1935).  When he reached 90, he was asked if he would soon retire. “I shall not resign or retire,” Holmes reportedly said, “until the Almighty Himself requests it.”

However, Holmes did subsequently resign from the Court in 1932, but he didn’t really retire.  Shortly after his inauguration in 1933, the new president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, paid a courtesy visit to Holmes, now age 92.  He found Holmes reading Plato.

“Why do you read Plato, Mr. Justice,” the President asked.

“To improve my mind, Mr. President, to improve my mind,” Holmes replied.

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