By Janet Glass,
President of The Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County
New Year’s resolutions. Often made, seldom kept. So, what could my resolution have to say to a diverse congregation facing a shiny new year? Well, one thing you might ask an old bird is, “looking back, what do you regret?” There have been lots of potential regrets for me. Being caught in a revolution while in Managua, Nicaragua in 1979 where my hotel facade was shot up with bullets? Don’t regret that trip. Hiking around the Canadian Fundy Park 7 months pregnant? Nope, don’t regret it. Leaving a tenured New York City job with a pension to open a risky language school with a partner? Nah, in the end, I didn’t regret it. I’ll tell you what I do regret. I remember one Sunday at the Hudson River Revival concert. I was hanging out with my young kids, my parents and the family of a friend, BK Rothman. We were sitting on blankets on the crowded grass listening to Arlo Guthrie sing. Standing in the far distance was my husband with Barbara’s husband. I had the lunch bag filled with cut melon and sandwiches of provolone and hard salami. I handed out the sandwiches to those around me, ignoring my husband. My daughter was old enough to realize this and grabbed some food to bring to her father. I felt lousy, inconsiderate, thoughtless. It’s 26 years ago, we’re now divorced, and it still bothers me. What I regret most in my life, are failures of kindness.
Although we have to have some self-interest in order to create and sustain a viable life for ourselves, we also wish to be loving. Here’s the problem. It’s hard. It’s not all unicorns and angel wings. There are times when some poor soul is right there in front of us, suffering humiliation or neglect, and we respond mildly, pragmatically even reasonably but not with empathy. How could we do better?
We have some help in the words and deeds of smart people who have come before us; we have Ethical Culture’s core belief to bring out the best in others. Education, deep conversations with friends, meditation, immersion in the arts and literature, mindfulness training, I believe all of that helps. Dwight Panozzo’s Contemplative Humanist Group, the Socrates Café, the Sanctuary Committee work, Eric Sandhusen and Lisa Repasky’s new Gift Circle, our Festivals, the selfless volunteers at Platforms, much of what we do at the Society points us in an open direction. Having kids. It’s tough to be selfish when the baby is hungry at 3 a.m. Having tough times. We collect kindnesses when we receive help, sometimes from strangers. This nourishes our gratitude. Getting older. As we begin to lose loved ones, we can’t help but be reminded of our impermanence. I think we come to see how trivial it is to be selfish. Our self-interest diminishes and becomes replaced by a softer and more loving heart.
For those of us who are busy building a career, concentrating on “accomplishing” and are slowly growing into becoming more generous, I’d urge you to err on the side of kindness now. I don’t regret the risks I took in my life. It’s the missed opportunities to be kind that haunt. Let’s try to do those things that incline us toward our luminous generosity of spirit, our inner Gandhi. My New Year’s resolution for 2015 has a corny, borrowed soundtrack: This kind light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine. Wishing you all a luminous new year.