Imagine you wake up
with a second chance: The blue jay
hawks his pretty wares
and the oak still stands, spreading
glorious shade. If you don’t look back,
The future never happens…
(Excerpt from “Dawn Revisited”, in On the Bus with Rosa Parks, by Rita Dove)
Several years ago, I stumbled on a photograph used in an advertisement for insurance. A young man, wearily hoping for someone to offer him a ride, stands by the side of the road, his hair disheveled, wearing a worn sheepskin jacket, and holding a sign that reads “If I had a second chance, I’d be home by now.”
We’d all like a second chance from time to time—a “do-over,” the opportunity to make a different choice than before, a clean page to begin a new life chapter. Maybe that’s why we approach the new year with promises to ourselves that we’ll shed those extra twenty pounds, exercise regularly, mend fences with an estranged family member or friend, or finish the novel that refuses to be banished to the dust bin. It’s a new year, a chance to put intention into action. Despite the political wrangling in our nation’s capital, we can’t help but face the new year with hope for another chance to improve our lives.
Resolved: this year
I’m going to break my losing streak,
I’m going to stay alert, reach out,
speak when not spoken to,
read the minds of people in the streets.
I’m going to practice every day,
stay in training, and be moderate
in all things…
(From: “New Year’s Resolution,” by Philip Appleman, in New and Selected Poems, 1996)
But looking forward, making those well-intended resolutions, requires not only action, but reflection. As Rita Dove reminds us, “if you don’t look back/the future never happens.” Looking back over our past life gives us the opportunity for insight, for understanding those parts of life that no longer serve us, for deciding what aspects of our old behaviors we want to leave behind and what we want to carry with us into the new year. “Life can only be understood backwards but it must be lived forwards,” according to the Danish philosopher and theologian, Søren Kierkegaard.
Moving forward into a new year, a new life, means coming to terms with the past. In an independent, 2009 award-winning film The Things We Carry, the viewer follows the story of two sisters, who, in the different ways they chose to deal with an addict mother, are pushed apart. The story explores their journey through the San Fernando Valley to a dingy motel in search of a package left for them by their deceased mother. Their old sibling wounds are exposed and recounted, but the sisters finally achieve peace with themselves and each other. “The key to moving forward,” the film’s tagline reads, “lies in the past.”
In Laura Hillenbrand’s nonfiction bestseller, Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, the inspiring story of Louie Zamperini, an Olympian track star who became an Army Air Corps bombardier in 1941 before crashing into the Pacific, and surviving for 47 days on a life raft before being taken captive by the Japanese. As a POW, he was beaten, starved and declared dead by the Army before his release in 1945, only to battle, as so many POWs did, the demons and nightmares of PTSD. His is not only a story of survival and heroism, but a story of redemption, a second chance achieved by putting the brutal wounds of his past behind him. As author Hillenbrand stated, “There was no one right way to peace; each man had to find his own path….”
We each have to find our own ways of coming to terms with our pasts. Whether diagnosed with cancer or suffering from other hardship, we all carry burdens in our lives, virtual knapsacks filled with old ways of being, belief systems, wounds and grievances from the past, lingering pain or anger, even fear. A new year offers us a symbolic new beginning–that second chance—an opportunity to understand and discard those things that no longer serve us, weigh us down, or even interfere with healing. As you see the old year out tomorrow night and welcome in a new one, take some time to reflect on your life before you make that list of New Year’s Resolutions. Look back and step into 2013 with new insight and understanding.
Best wishes to you all for a new year filled with new delights, the warmth of friendship and family, and a second–even third or fourth–chance to move forward into the life you want.