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Monday, December 28, 2009

It's time to look inward for 2010

It's time to look inward
As we head into 2010, the lessons of faith can guide individuals to change their ways. Only then can the nation as a whole better itself. Three New Year’s resolutions can put you on the right path

By Oliver Thomas
Peer into 2010, and you can't help feeling a little queasy. The planet is getting hotter, drier and more crowded. It's also getting angrier. Terrorism shows no signs of letting up, and the global economic crisis has left millions unemployed. Throw Pakistani, Iranian and North Korean nukes in the mix, and I find myself wanting to crawl under the bed rather than out of it in the morning.

And while many Americans would like to change the world, few of us see the need to change ourselves. Take our national leaders, for example. As I watch members of Congress thrash around over various policy issues, I'm convinced that the struggle our country faces extends beyond health care, war and the deficit. It's an inner struggle. The rancorous incivility and obdurate partisanship are not the necessary byproducts of healthy political debate. They are the childish symptoms of a populace that is losing its capacity for empathy and compromise — characteristics of any successful society.

But the problem extends beyond our elected leaders. Behind the housing bubble and resulting economic meltdown lies an inner problem: greed. Young couples wanted more house than they could afford; banks wanted to make easy money on loans they never should have made. And behind the gargantuan federal debt lies yet another inner problem: indiscipline. We want more government than we're willing to pay for. Our unwillingness either to pay more or spend less is literally bankrupting the country.

Here's where our religions might be able to help. It's a fundamental tenet of most faiths that the journey inward precedes the journey outward. As Gandhi famously put it, we must embody the change we wish to see in the world. If the world is to be less violent, then I — not you — must be slower to anger and kinder in my speech. Is everyone who drives slower than I really an idiot? Are the ones who drive faster really maniacs? And what am I teaching my kids when I talk like this? If there is too much sex and violence on TV, then I must turn it off — not just complain to my wife that the world is going to hell in a handbasket.

This unwillingness to accept personal responsibility for one's own share of a collective problem sometimes surfaces in marriage counseling. Here's what I used to say to the individual who kept blaming his or her spouse: "Well, how much would you say is your fault? Ten percent?" "Oh, sure," the person would reply. "I'm good for at least 10%." "Great," I would say. "Let's talk about that 10%."

It's time to steal a play from members of the World War II generation. Those people took individual responsibility seriously. They were restrained in their speech and frugal with their money. And, they were determined to put more back in the world than they took out — especially when it came to their children. They understood that the greatest self-actualization (my generation's obsession) came not through titillating their nerve endings but through service to others, whether on the battlefield or in their communities. Neither America's problems nor the world's are insurmountable if we can follow their example.

Of course, it won't be easy. Becoming a better person never is. That's why we work like hell to avoid it. But until we are willing to improve ourselves individually, we will never become a better nation collectively.

So here's my best advice on how to improve us. Starting with me.

New Year's resolution No. 1: Become more empathetic

This is where it all starts. If I can't see the world through others' eyes, I will never be a good citizen, much less able to love my neighbor as myself. Until we understand each other, we will never make common cause.

So how does one become more empathetic? By engaging with people different from ourselves and listening. So take a gay work colleague to lunch. Visit a mosque, synagogue or African-American church. Invite a friend from a different political party over for a beer. Then, ask questions. And listen.

New Year's resolution No. 2: Practice compassion

The Dalai Lama says if you want to make other people happy, practice compassion. If you want to make yourself happy, practice compassion. The quickest way to become more compassionate? Volunteer. I do it once a week at a local children's home, but there are a thousand other choices. Call your local United Way for a list of good options.

Here's another way. Do as the bumper sticker says and start engaging in random acts of kindness. Don't just walk by the homeless person. Take her to lunch. Give your coat to the man standing on the windy street corner in a threadbare jacket. You've probably got more at home. Throw a twenty in the Salvation Army's pot when you're shopping. Just start doing kind things for others. Compassion must be practiced, and here's the thing: Behavior begets habit. Habit begets character. Next thing you know, you've become a compassionate person.

New Year's resolution No. 3: Hold your tongue

James, the brother of Jesus, had this to say about the human tongue: "How great a forest is set aflame by such a small fire! ... For every species of beasts and birds, of reptiles and creatures of the sea, is tamed and has been tamed by the human race. But no one can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil and full of deadly poison."

Rarely have I gotten into trouble for things I didn't say. More often, I'm hoisted with my own petard.

Accordingly, I'll start with this simple goal: Speak no harm. When I'm tempted to do otherwise, I'll try to follow my mother's sage advice and count to 20 before I speak. This one will be the hardest for me.

We have much to be thankful for. But while some are being called on to die for our country, perhaps the rest of us are being called on to live for it. Whether we can become the people we must be in order to be the nation the world needs us to be is entirely up to us.

Oliver Thomas is a member of USA TODAY's board of contributors and author of 10 Things Your Minister Wants to Tell You (But Can't Because He Needs the Job).

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