Last February, I got serious about making my year count. I made a list of goals to strive for in 2017, and I also made a list of how to accomplish those goals. Looking back on the year, for once in my life, I’m pleased with and thankful for how much I accomplished. I lost weight, got published, maintained my blog, did good things, traveled new places.
But it’s almost 2018—time to make a new list, time to add to the goals and continue the progress.
I hope that you, too, are planning for success in 2018. Here are my three pieces of advice for making your New Year’s list of goals.
1. Don’t only list your goals, but also delineate how to accomplish those goals. Make a plan for achieving each goal.
2. Don’t overwhelm yourself by adding too many goals. Make them manageable, yet still challenging.
3. Prepare to fail; refuse to quit. There’s no way you can check everything off your list (thus, why it’s important to make a manageable list of goals.) You will fail some days, and you will come short of your goals in the next year, but what matters is that you wake up the next day and start over again.
I wish you a wonderful new year, filled with progress and joy.
On December 1, 2015, I realized that I would be celebrating my golden birthday that year, which meant that I would turn 30 on the 30th of December. Thirty wasn’t a birthday I looked forward to reaching, but as the day got closer, it made me feel braver to look back on my years and remember what I’d learned.
I’ll be honest, with Christmas and moving to a new apartment and hosting houseguests, there hasn’t been a lot of time to think about my 32 birthday on Saturday. But to celebrate, I thought I’d pull out those 30 lessons and add 2 more to the list.
You’ll notice that many of these lessons I learned from the people in my life. I’m thankful that in my 32 years I’ve been surrounded by so many wise, inspiring people. Thank you for inspiring me to be a better person.
Here’s my list of 32 things I’ve learned and am still slowly learning each day.
#1. Courage is simply showing up, perhaps fearfully, hesitantly, or even unwillingly, but showing up to do the right thing and learning along the way the joy of doing it.
#2. Regret is an emotion to embrace. People who regret nothing are unable to see and correct the errors of their ways.
#3. “You do it. You just do it.” My mom told me this several years ago, and I’ve never forgotten it. Duty will take you farther than desire, allowing you to complete a task or accept a responsibility that isn’t pleasant. Duty is just a more austere form of love.
#4. Be willing to be found by adventure. I’ve rarely found adventure when I was looking for it—but it has surely found me, usually when I was doing something I didn’t even want to be doing. Go beyond your comfort zone, try new things, and embrace detours. Take it from me: it’s a little embarrassing to have a good time when you had planned to be miserable.
#5. “Let it go with the night.” Laura told me this one time when I was upset over something right before bed. I often wake up in the mornings thinking about the problem that I fell asleep thinking about the night before. But lately I’ve been reminded of that Anne Shirley quote, “Isn’t it nice to think that tomorrow is a new day with no mistakes in it yet?” God’s mercies are new every morning, offering a clean slate and fresh start. We might as well give ourselves the same courtesy.
#6. Growing up isn’t just about learning—it’s about unlearning harmful things you’ve learned along the way and relearning good things you’ve forgotten.
#7. Marriage isn’t a measurement of worth, and there are far worse things than being single.
#8. Kindness has power. It’s a lie of the world that violence and anger are strength. The truth is that violence and anger are simply easy. Kindness is not an easy flame to light, but it shines bright and cuts through any darkness. In the film Doubt, Philip Seymour Hoffman said, “There are people who go after your humanity,. . . that tell you that the light in your heart is a weakness. Don’t believe it. It’s an old tactic of cruel people to kill kindness.”
#9. Listen to the right people. We’re bombarded by so many messages, some direct and some indirect. Facebook, phone calls, emails, advertisements, passing strangers, family, acquaintances, close friends, and even ourselves. Some messages can be discouraging, demeaning, and downright mean. But when we listen closely, there are other messages coming through of kindness, affirmation, and truth. And those are the people we need to listen to.
# 10. “No man is a failure who has friends.” Because let’s face it: true friendship is one of the hardest things to obtain and especially to maintain. If you have a friend, it means you’ve worked hard to achieve the friendship. Other times it means that you’ve got patient friends who have worked hard to be your friend even if you haven’t put in the effort. Either way, friendship is about the most rewarding thing on earth.
#11. Retail workers are people too. Some of them are trying very hard to give you the best shopping experience of your life. Also, just because someone can’t make change on the spot doesn’t mean that they are stupid—it means that they can’t do math fast in their head.
#12. Never choose your chocolate in the dark. Back when I was teaching, one day right before class, I slipped into the faculty workroom without turning on the light, and I selected one of the chocolates from the Whitman sampler that some kind soul had brought to share with the English department. Unfortunately, when I bit into it, it was filled with that nasty caramel-flavored putty. Always remember, when you’re faced with one of those samplers, turn on the light, check the box, be sure you’re right, then go ahead. Make of what you will of this metaphor.
#13. Work brings us purpose. “We should be living for Monday instead of Friday.” When a Sunday school teacher said this a few years ago, it stuck with me. It goes against our culture to embrace work rather than play. But over the years, I’ve come to understand that Monday through Friday is where we can often find the most purpose in our offices or stores or whatever venue we find our employment. Julianne Moore said, “A happy person is a person with work and love.” And I agree. I’m thankful that I’ve learned the value of work and the joy that comes from a completed checklist, a finished project, and a job well done.
#14. Do your best. It’s all you can do, and it’s always enough.
#15. “Let go, but don’t give up.” My friend Rachel told me this once, and I’ve never forgotten it. It’s very difficult to watch people we love making mistakes harmful to themselves and others. The stress of worrying about them, the frustration of dealing with them, the feelings of being hurt by them can be draining. Sometimes you just have to let them go their own way, but never give up hoping they’ll make right choices, keep promises, and turn around.
#16. “Someone has to be conflicted about the answers.” My friend Carmen told me this. Dogma doesn’t come easy to me despite the dogmatic environments I’ve lived in most of my life. I’m conflicted about the easy answers to complex issues I hear in the world, from both sides of the issues. It’s important to have people to the right and the left—but also ones in the middle. Sometimes it means they lack backbone or standards. But sometimes, it just means they need more time to think.
#17. Knowledge—especially knowledge of truth—brings freedom. I don’t consider myself an intelligent person. I’ve often told Laura how inept I feel. This summer, she told me, “The reason you feel unintelligent is that you are always learning things that you don’t know.” And it made sense. People who don’t enjoy learning typically already think they know everything; people who are constantly learning always feel a bit inept because they know how much more they have to learn. The more you learn the more you are free from ignorance and lies. Free to make informed decisions; free to carry on conversations confidently; free to reason logically; free to think; free to remain calm in the face of ignorance. It’s a great lie that young people believe that school or learning is pointless. It’s a lie I certainly believed until I went to college—maybe even until after I graduated. But I’m glad the lesson found me. Just one more thing I’ve learned.
#18. Discipline your mind to believe what you don’t feel.
#19. The world needs all kinds of people. When we were first becoming friends, I asked Laura, “Where would we be if Lucille Ball had been jealous of Audrey Hepburn?” Can you imagine a world in which the hilarity of Lucille Ball existed but not the grace and cuteness of Audrey Hepburn? If one had tried to be the other, pop culture just wouldn’t be the same—both women were different but beloved. It’s so easy—especially as an introvert melancholy without a whole lot of flash or bang to get people’s attention—to think less of myself for not being more extroverted and peppy. But it takes all kinds of people, and everyone has his own role in making the world a better place.
#20. The more you read, the faster you read. Reading comprehension is a skill that you get better at the more you practice it. (Read more about that in my blog post “Learning to Read Again.”)
#21. It’s okay to take a break, even when there’s more work to do. Back when I worked at Barnes and Nobel, one day the lines were so long that I felt bad even taking a 30-minute lunch break. I told this to one of my coworkers who was also on break in the workroom. “I’ve been working retail for almost 20 years,” she said. “And the way I see it, people in history died so that you can take a 30 minute lunch break. So take the break.” I guess that’s sound advice for many aspects of life. Just take the break.
#22. Sadness and joy are connected. To know joy you must have known some sort of sadness or else joy is just a status quo state of being. It’s rare that any experience is entirely joyful.
#23. A quantity of presents will never take the place of quality relationships. At Barnes and Noble, I scanned thousands of dollars worth of, quite frankly, crap every single day. I saw people making impulse purchases. Plastic toys. Cheap stocking stuffers. Goofy gift books. Trying some way to make their quantity of presents represent the quality spirit of Christmas. The older I get, the more I want fewer presents—even no presents. But more quality time, silent nights sitting by the Christmas tree, playing games with my family, a road trip to the mountains. I’m thankful for things I can unwrap; but I’m more thankful for the gifts of time and love that I’ll never forget.
#24. Those who love us best encourage us to be ourselves—who we need to be and who we want to be. God has given each of us our passions, our desires, our traits. There will always be people who reject us or discourage us from enjoying or fulfilling those passions. But I think it’s important to surround ourselves with people who will encourage us to be who we need to be—and who we want to be.
#25. It’s much more fun to give than to receive. Some people think that the magic of Christmas dissipates when we grow up. But I believe it has only just begun as we shift from being the receivers to the givers of gifts.
#26. The trip is always shorter when you know the way. Ever noticed that the way back from a place always seems shorter than the way there? A familiar road is shorter than a new street. Sometimes the way to destinations like humility, love, patience, self-discipline, and faith seem to be long. But once we’ve visited those places in our hearts and minds, the way back to them seems shorter each time we need to visit again. I think the goal is to finally just think of those destinations as home.
#27. Practicality is every bit as appealing as the extravagant. This Christmas, two of my favorite gifts were an electric toothbrush and a vacuum cleaner. Becoming more practical the older I get doesn’t mean I’m getting more boring—it just means that I’m learning what’s really important.
#28. Sometimes you sweat in December and shiver in August: our seasons of life are what we make of them. So many people are going through seasons of their lives that don’t feel like the right seasons. We are conditioned to believe that youth will be free from burdens, that old age will be a time to relax. Instead we have children burdened with the failures of their parents and middle age and older people burdened with aging parents or raising their grandchildren. We have preconceptions of our seasons of life, but sometimes the snow doesn’t fall, the trees don’t bloom, the sun doesn’t shine like we expect. It is expectations that get us in trouble instead of accepting the seasons as they come and enduring or enjoying them. As the wise wizard Gandalf said, “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”
#29. Do the thing that scares you. I decided years ago that I would face my fears, consciously taking steps to do things that scared me. I don’t always follow through, but when I do, I always feel braver, feel better.
#30. There are so many things in this world that you can’t change. Just change the things you can and let the rest go.
#31. Failure isn’t the end—it’s just the beginning of a new start.
#32. You are responsible only for your own responses. We could sit around fuming over the way someone treated us, some offensive thing they said or obnoxious way they acted. But the truth is, we can only control our own responses to those circumstances. And that in itself is a full time job.
What are some life lessons that the years have taught you?
In second grade, my class took a field trip to the Benjamin Harrison Home in downtown Indianapolis. I don’t remember much about the stately building that the 23rd president once called home. I do remember that it was cold—as to be expected on a gray December afternoon in the Midwest—and I remember the toy soldier.
Perhaps in an attempt to keep little fingers from destroying the immaculate holiday décor of the historical home, our tour concluded with craft time—now the visit was worth my while. I surveyed the spread before us hungrily—markers in every color, orange-capped glue bottles neatly in a row, and the pièce de résistance, sequins.
We were each given a flat wooden ornament in the shape of a toy soldier. Thick black lines denoted where his hat, face, coat, and pants all began and ended, presumably to guide our coloring efforts so the end result would indeed resemble a toy soldier. The lines that formed his simplistic facial features gave me the impression that this was a soldier who took his job seriously.
This was a soldier who took his job seriously.
Most of my classmates immediately grabbed markers and started coloring, but my soldier needed a certain look—distinguished and buttoned up like a good soldier should be. I finally decided on the Buckingham Palace look, carefully coloring my soldier’s hat and pants black and his coat a bright red, intentionally leaving his face and hands uncolored so that the natural wood would serve as his skin tone. Wanting him to look perfect, I was the last child remaining at the craft table as I meticulously glued two identical rows of three gold sequins down his coat for buttons. My teacher shooed me onto the bus as I held my soldier by the edges so I wouldn’t mess him up as the glue dried.
When I got home, my mother wanted to hear about what I’d learned on my field trip, but all I wanted to do was show her my masterpiece. She was used to my affinity for crafts and would dutifully rave about my skills as an artist. I never doubted that she loved every attempt at artistic greatness I made with my school craft projects, but this time I could tell that she was truly impressed.
“Rachel, this looks beautiful. So precise with the buttons!” She exclaimed. I beamed. “Let’s go hang this on the tree right now so everyone can see it.”
She let me do the honors. I picked a branch that was easy for my eight-year-old arms to reach, low on the tree but front and center. The soldier’s buttons glinted off the lights tucked amid the boughs. Proud of my day’s work, I followed my mom from the front room and switched off the light so that only the tree lights remained.
The soldier’s buttons glinted off the lights tucked amid the boughs.
The next morning, I headed from my bedroom toward the kitchen in my usual before-school routine. On my way, I stopped by the tree to check on my soldier—and immediately realized something was wrong. My toy soldier’s face was smeared with black and his pristine red coat appeared smudged and dirty. Clutching the soldier in my trembling hands, I ran to the kitchen.
“Mom, what happened?” My voice broke on the last syllable.
She took the ornament from my outstretched hands and examined it before replying. “Looks like Krystal found the newest addition to the tree.” Krystal, our family dog who was lying in a patch of sunlight on the kitchen floor, perked up at the sound of her name. “She must’ve licked it, which made the markers bleed and run together. I’m so sorry, sweetie.”
As I walked into school a little while later, sadness and frustration whipped through my mind like the harsh winter wind whipped at my tear-streaked face. My melancholy mood continued the rest of the day, settling in even deeper when soon after I arrived home from school my mom called me to the front room.
I didn’t want to see his marred face again.
“I want to show you something.” She motioned me over to the tree, to the branch where I’d placed my soldier yesterday. Walking closer to where she stood, I could see that she’d hung the ornament back up, but I didn’t want to see his marred face again. I stopped several steps away.
She plucked the soldier off his branch and, walking toward me, placed it gently in my hands. “I think he’s ready to report for duty again.”
I glanced down. My toy soldier stared stoically back at me, his face once again clear and his coat clean. Stupefied, my fingers ran over his face and coat, instantly recognizing their new texture: freshly dried paint.
While I’d been at school, my mother had gathered paints and a set of tiny brushes before painstakingly mixing the paints until they matched the soldier’s original colors. The red of his coat took only a few attempts; for his natural wooden face, she had to test one color mixture after another before finally finding one she liked. Last, she painted on his serious expression.
Realizing what she’d done for me, I hugged my mother with every ounce of strength I could muster. As I hung my ornament back on the tree, I no longer saw a simple toy soldier; I saw my mother’s love laid bare among the branches, glinting off the tree lights, staring back at me with painted eyes.
. . . . . . . . . . .
With a penchant for puns and a love of alliteration, Rachel Matthai spends her days constructing marketing plans and then crafting the creative content to back it up in her job as a marketing strategist and copywriter. When she’s not working, Rachel enjoys perusing Pinterest, undertaking DIY projects, hunting for bargains, and spending time with her firefighter husband, Jeremy, and their two dogs, Kasper and Reesie.
The VHS was second hand when we got it. The cover was worn and the green foil lettering had rubbed off. With a black-and-white cover photo of a man and his wife embracing, it looked like the world’s most boring movie. Despite its jubilant title—It’s a Wonderful Life—I just didn’t get what made Dad pop it into the VHS player each Christmas.
But somewhere along my way from bored child to empathetic adult, I started recognizing myself in the movie. There wasn’t a particular Christmas when I got my adult wings and was able to see things clearly. The truth is, I think that I just kind of grew into the movie.
I just kind of grew into the movie.
This year, I found myself thinking a lot about Henry F. Potter. Like many villains, he’s a fairly undeveloped character. There’s no backstory for his nastiness, and no redemption for him in the end. 1
Potter is a “money-grubbing buzzard” who looms over George’s life, waiting to consume the Building and Loan if George ever so much as turns his back. It is Potter, really, who caused George his lifelong sacrifice and grief. (Uncle Billy was probably right when he claimed Potter drove Peter Bailey to his grave, thus creating the need for George to stay behind and fill his father’s role.)
George got it right. In the context of things, Potter was “a scurvy little spider.” He criticized George for staying in the measly old town. But why didn’t he go out and try bigger things, run bigger banks, conquer bigger towns? Possibly because he was a bully, too hesitant in his own disabilities to do anything beyond oppress a little town and its people. He wanted a dynasty, small though it was. He wanted Pottersville, a town indebted to and enthralled with the “richest man in town.”
When you stop to think about it, it’s surprising just how much George and Potter had in common. George wanted something he was never quite able to have—education, travel, money, achievement—and it gnawed at him his entire life. Just as he’s about to board the train to see the world, the Building and Loan offers him a fateful ultimatum. Just when his brother Harry returns from college to take over the Building and Loan, George realizes that Harry will never have the heart to lead the business. Just when he gets married and is headed to his honeymoon to presumably see the parts of the world he’d always wanted to see and live the life that was meant for him (the highest hotels, the oldest champagne, the richest caviar, the hottest music), the Great Depression hits and he gives his money away to the townspeople.
I love watching George’s face when he’s sitting in Potter’s office, listening as he paints the picture of George’s life: “[You’re] an intelligent, smart, ambitious young man, who hates his job, who hates the Building and Loan, almost as much as I do. A young man who has to sit by and watch his friends go places, because he’s trapped. Trapped into frittering his life away playing nursemaid to a lot of garlic-eaters.”
Unlike Potter, George didn’t want to conquer, he wanted to build.
George fairly writhes at this description. He knows it’s true because he had all but said the same thing to his weary father on the evening he died and because on the day the stock market collapsed he was the one convincing the panicking townspeople to not go crawling to Potter—saving them from themselves. He implored, “If Potter gets ahold of this Building and Loan, there’ll never be another decent house built in this town.”
There’s no doubt that George knew what he was doing was important—trouble was, he didn’t feel it. Anything else would have felt bigger—more significant. Unlike Potter, George didn’t want to conquer, he wanted to build—modern cities and air fields and bridges a mile long and skyscrapers a hundred stories high.
George never gave up those dreams of building things. The night after Uncle Billy loses the money, when George angrily tears apart the living room, if you notice, the tables he tips over held a model bridge, skyscraper, and blueprints for more.
But through the difficult years, George created something bigger than bridges or skyscrapers—he built “dozens of the prettiest little homes you ever saw.” And in the process of building homes for other people, he had built his own life without knowing it. In fact, he had built a legacy.
Of course, he didn’t grasp just how big his life actually was. In one of the first lines of the movie, Bert the cop prays, “He never thinks about himself, God. That’s why he’s in trouble.”
At Harry’s snow-coated headstone, when Clarence tells the story of how Harry broke through the ice and drowned, George snaps, “That’s a lie! Harry Bailey went to war! He saved the lives of every man on that transport!”
I might have argued, “That’s a lie! I saved Harry’s life when we were kids.” But not George. He remembered the lives that his brother had saved, not his own heroic deed. In George’s mind, it was not Harry being rescued that defined Harry’s life, but the lives that Harry rescued.
Think about it: when the angel Joseph starts telling George’s story at the beginning of the movie, he starts when George rescues Harry. Our story often truly begins when we touch someone else’s life.
I guess my point is that while Potter and George were craving a life they didn’t have, they hadn’t stopped to think about the life they had already been building. Potter had accrued riches and real estate at the expense of his soul while George had managed to accumulate the trust and friendship of nearly every person in Bedford Falls. Potter had built a life of greed, malice, and pride, George a life of honor, duty, and sacrifice.
I think that we’re all a bit like Potter and George. We want something more, something bigger. But I think Bert the cop defined our problem in his oxymoronic prayer: We never think about ourselves; that’s why we’re in trouble. Oh, I don’t mean we should think about what’s best for ourself at the expense of others, and I’m not promoting self-love or telling you to follow your heart or any of those tired narcissistic tropes. I mean, we need to think about our lives, about the kind of person we’ve become and are becoming. Greedy or giving, sacrificial or soulless—it helps to reflect if we are ever to improve, ever to understand in what ways God has used us in his plan or might one day use us.
This Christmas and New Year, let’s take some time not merely to consider what kind of life we want to be living, but the life that we already are living, day by day, person by person, choice by choice. As you count your friendships, your accomplishments, and even your sacrifices, I hope that you’ll see—you really built a wonderful life.
In an alternate opening to the movie, George’s gang is sledding on Potter’s property when he releases his dogs after them, causing Harry to fall into the frozen pond. And in an alternate ending to the movie, Potter shows up at the Bailey’s door and hears the mirth making inside, but instead of returning the money, he turns and leaves.
When I was a little girl, well-meaning people often made the mistake of asking me, “Are you ready for Santa?”
Mom shot me a look, warning me not to offend anyone. Then, shaking my pig-tails, I simply said, “No,” leaving the people to wonder if I were an unbeliever or if I had just been bad and knew it.
The notion of Santa appeared only briefly in my childhood. Mom sometimes recalled her childhood memories of St. Nick. One Christmas Eve, she swears Rudolf led Santa’s sleigh through the fog right by her window and landed with a hoofy clatter on the roof above her second story bedroom. And then there were the cookies that magically disappeared by Christmas morning.
The jolly old guy appeared in jokes too. When they wanted me to stay in bed, my parents spoke in code on Christmas Eve. “We’re gonna go help Santa now.” But my sister Heather and I knew to interpret it as “We’re gonna stay up all night wrapping the presents we’ve been stashing in the corner of our bedroom.”
My more regular encounters with Santa came in dogma. According to the churches of my childhood, Santa diluted the true meaning of Christmas—Christ’s birth. In fact, the way they talked, Santa’s North Pole was right next door to Satan’s Hades. I remember hearing an older lady point out, “Santa is just Satan spelled with the n in the wrong place.” And that statue of Santa kneeling by the manger—pure anathema!
“Santa is just Satan spelled with the n in the wrong place.”
Though others in our church sometimes went to extreme measures to make sure their children knew the truth about the Santa lie, my parents didn’t go to ridiculous lengths to debunk Santa’s imaginary existence—they never needed to. To me, Santa was just a claymation character from Rudolph or a pudgy cartoon from Frosty the Snowman. We weren’t banned from watching Santa movies, but we never sat on his knee in the Greenville Mall where his elaborate house jutted up two stories with real furniture inside. Trailing behind Mom, we stared at the line of children and parents wrapped around the house. Poor little suckers, I remember thinking.
People also argued that Santa made kids unthankful to their parents, the real benefactors of Christmas who spent their time and money on the lovely presents. The old guy’s fabled generosity planted greed and covetousness in children who grew into materialistic adults.
When I was a kid I didn’t really need Santa Claus. I got everything I wanted for Christmas—not anything I wanted, but everything on my list, and since I didn’t believe in Santa’s wish-granting magic, I knew to only ask for reasonable things that my parents could afford. As an adult now, I ask for gift cards, TV show seasons, electronics—expensive toys. Could it be that even without Santa, I’ve grown a bit greedy?
Given my anti-Santa history, when he came to town a few Christmases ago, it didn’t mean much to me. But one Saturday morning, two weeks before Thanksgiving, Laura, and I were walking through the mall early, even before the grates went up and the stores unlocked for business. After grabbing vanilla lattes from Starbucks, we walked around distracting ourselves from the MFA projects due later that week.
We’d just passed Kay’s Jewelers when we saw the sign: Pictures with Santa.
“We should get our picture taken with Santa.” Laura stopped walking and pointed at the sign. “And look—there’s no one in line. Come on.” She charged forward with me trailing behind her muttering all the things that could go wrong with two 27 year olds charging up to Santa’s throne.
A person does not walk up to Santa without a strategy.
Though always eager for an adventure, I enjoy them most after they’re thought through. But with no line of parents trying to keep their wiggly kids corralled until their turn on the fleshy, wish-granting knee, I had to stall for time to think. A person does not walk up to Santa without a strategy. “What are we gonna wish for?” I halted at the front of the line, straightening my necklace, tucking my hair behind my ears.
“I don’t know.” Laura fluffed her curls. “I’ll come up with something.” And we proceeded onto the carpet to meet the man in red.
Only when I stood before him, did I realize I was scared. Was I really violating some hidden commandment by approaching the storied wish granter, the stealer of the Christ child’s glory?
“Well, hello there.” He sounded as jolly as I imagine every Santa has sounded since the beginning of Santa time.
His belly laugh calmed my fears. This was a welcoming enough version of Santa. Instead of a red velveteen jacket, he wore a silky vest with a triangle pattern of maroon and jade. He had a real white beard, twinkly blue eyes, and a gleaming smile which he flashed when he saw us coming. “Are you going to sit on Santa’s knee?” he asked, clearly eager at the prospect.
Seeing Laura’s eyes widen in surprise, I knew that she hadn’t planned for this—so I took over. “Oh, sure why not?” Like a veteran Santa believer, I plopped down on his substantial thigh.
Laura settled lightly, not leaning her full weight on his knee. “Are we going to hurt you?”
“Oh, I hope not.” His voice came out deep and deliberate from talking to children for too
We smiled cheesily, and then, while his elves printed the pictures, Santa asked, “Does Santa get a hug?”
We wrapped our arms around him for a side hug and patted his back; but he wanted more. “Aww, come on, give Santa a big hug.”
“So do we get to make a wish?”
As we squeezed him just a tad tighter, Laura looked at me behind his back, her eyes bulging. To distract us from the awkward moment, I went after the full Santa experience. “So do we get to make a wish?”
“Well, what would you like?” he asked.
“I would like inspiration and tenacity.” My wish came out sounding like a six year old
who’d had her Christmas list memorized since June. I’d watched enough Santa movies to know what came next: the benevolent, though empty, promise of my wish.
But to my surprise, he shook his head slowly and gave a drawn out, “Weeelll, I can’t give you those. Inspiration and tenacity are things already inside you. You just have to find them. Tenacity is discipline; you just have to decide to do something. Take baby steps with a positive attitude. And inspiration—well, inspiration is all around you. You just have to look for it.”
I had no Christmas movie protocol for following this response. He might as well have said, “You’ll shoot your eye out, kid.”
He might as well have said, “You’ll shoot your eye out, kid.”
Mistaking my silence for satisfaction, Santa turned to Laura. “And what would you like?”
“Um.” She looked at me blankly, as if calculating the deficits in her life to really make
this wish count. Like my wish, I knew she, too, would ask for some quality to empower her to finish her graduate project. Finally, she decided, “I would like motivation.”
Santa shook his head again. “Weeelll, I can’t give you that either. Now, motivation, that’s simply pulling yourself up by the bootstraps. Doing what you don’t want to do.”
What a rip off, I thought. Then, determined to get more than a psychotherapy session with Dr. Claus, I asked, “So since you can’t grant either of our wishes, could we wish for a million dollars?”
“Well, you can wish for it,” he chuckled, “but I don’t think you’re going to get it.”
“Is the economy in the North Pole as bad as it is here?”
“Well, we made a deal with the treasury department: I won’t print money if they won’t make toys.”
“That makes sense.” I gave a half grin, impressed that he was made of more than sparkles and stuffing. This St. Nick had wit.
He held up a gloved finger, preemptively covering any other ungrantables. “I also can’t bring Xbox 360s or Play Stations or iPhones.”
Before I could ask exactly what he could bring,
he reached into a basket beside him and held out two small toys wrapped in cellophane. A rubber smiley face to remind me to be optimistic. A rubber Santa Claus to remind Laura that Santa sees when she’s sleeping and when she’s been bad or good—if that wasn’t motivation then nothing would be.
Laura’s eyes were still wide when we said goodbye, collected our pictures from the elves, and walked away. Silence accompanied us as we passed Victoria Secret, Hot Topic, Old Navy, and other stores just opening, hoping to lure us in with sales that aren’t really sales on items that we don’t really need. Kind of like Santa. We had slapped down 24 bucks for pictures with a for-hire Santa sporting glittery cheeks, and we walked away with what? Two rubber toys. We noticed later that Laura’s Santa toy didn’t even have eyes painted on his peach face.
But somehow, I felt satisfied by my first meeting with Santa. Not the Santa of my childhood doctrine who stole the true meaning of Christmas and instigated greediness, nor a Santa who promised the impossible and shoved me off his knee, but a Santa who reminded me that what I need is already inside me.
I don’t guess I could wish for anything more than that.
Addictions often form over good things that our individual passions turn bad—alcohol, drugs, sex, food, pleasure of any kind. None of these things are innately evil in their raw state. We use alcohol as medicine, disinfectant, and an ingredient in fine cuisine. Drugs save lives, or at least help you feel better. Sex is natural. Food is both necessary and fun. I say all these things so that you know when I tell you to turn off the news, I am not saying that the news is evil. It’s both necessary and vital to stay informed regularly. The problem arises when reading the news becomes an addiction.
I am a recovering news-addict.
I am a recovering news-addict, and I never saw addiction coming. In my undergraduate years, I minored in journalism and later taught a journalism course when I became a college professor. Back then, around 2007 to 2012, I read the news weekly. Yes, weekly, and I rarely found myself uninformed. These years brought both of Barack Obama’s presidential runs, many shootings and terrorist attacks, and countless headlines and opinion pieces that kept me up to date on social issues, economics, celebrity gossip, politics, and major events.
Though I was not out of the loop, somewhere through the years, reading the news became a daily event, up to multiple times daily, to the point that I was reading more news articles than I was reading anything else—and that’s saying something, considering I’m a writer, editor, and English and writing professor.
The change, the beginning of my addiction, is easily traceable.
The change, the beginning of my addiction, is easily traceable. Just ask me when I became active on social media, and you’ll have your answer. I frequented Facebook and Twitter, and scrolling through feeds for headlines and celebrity opinions became part of my daily routine. I felt connected with the world at large, part of a collective group that is outraged at injustice, determined to stand for all that’s good. When Apple introduced the News App, headlines became even more accessible, waiting on my notifications screen 24 hours a day.
This constant accessibility of real-time news has taken its toll, a physical, mental, and even emotional toll, especially since 2016. Election seasons always leave us tired and sometimes wounded, but 2016 beat us bloody and dragged us into 2017 on a stretcher. We were so passionate, angry, grieved during the election that we drank the news frantically. Like passing by a gruesome accident, we couldn’t look away. If we were drunk on news in 2016, 2017’s news is causing us liver damage, fatigue, and possibly brain shrinkage. If we don’t seek help soon, we will be irreparably damaged.
News is necessary, and you must stay informed, but it’s time to learn how to say no when you’ve had enough. Here are 4 ways to stay sober in a news-saturated world.
Schedule when you will read the news and be disciplined about it. This can be daily, weekly, or whenever suits your schedule best, but I suggest no more than twice a day for 20 minutes. The major headlines stick around a while. What you may have missed in the afternoon will still be there in the evening.
Ask yourself these 3 questions after each article you read: (1) What can I do about this problem? (2) How can I determine how much of this information is true and complete? (3) How could I engage in meaningful conversation about this issue without being brash or biased?Two important parts of reading are comprehension and engagement. You may need to do some researching, soul-searching, or talking about an article after you read it. This helps you become discerning. Don’t simply assume you know it all, even if the article appears to preach “your side” of the issue. Mark Twain famously quipped, “If you don’t read the newspaper, you’re uninformed. If you read the newspaper, you’re mis-informed.” Fake news has been around for long time. Don’t fall victim.
Look for the good. Mr. Rogers said, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” Let’s face it: the world is full of idiots, some so bad you lose your faith in everyone, even your family dog. To avoid depression and unhealthy anger, look to those who are making a difference or ask what you can do—and do it.
Read a book instead. Ezra Pound said, “Literature is news that stays news.” News shows you the villains of the world and only rarely offers heroes. Literature offers you the full scope—the good, the bad, and even the ugly gray areas where we’re forced to make decisions in situations that have no easy answer. Because it’s timeless, good literature instructs, inspires, and ingrains in us a sense of ethos, of global community.
You probably have your own booklist, but in case you don’t, here are some titles I suggest, in no particular order and for no other reason than they each taught me something or delighted me with story:
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
Anything by Frederick Douglass
A Man Called Ove
The Cellist of Sarajevo
The Scarlet Pimpernel
Become the news you wish would make the headlines.
Recovering from news addiction may make you feel detached from the world at large. Those passions you feel over each shocking headline make you crave more fuel for your burning desire for justice and righteousness. That passion is the source and cause of your addiction. Rather than feeding your anger, channel it into something productive.
As with all addictions, fill the void with friends, family, and worthwhile pursuits. Write your own opinion piece, buy a meal for someone in need, clean out your house and donate items you don’t need (but are still in good condition) to your local mission or Goodwill. Take a friend out to coffee and listen to what’s on his or her mind. Become the news you wish would make the headlines. You’ll find that when you do, you can bear the current news better, because you’re better, and you’re helping others be better too.
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Laura Allnutt is my best friend, apartment-mate, fellow writer, and dearest inspiration. She holds an MFA in fiction from Fairfield University and has recently finished writing her first novel. She works as an online teacher and editor and enjoys being adventurous in the kitchen. Learn more about her in just about any of my posts, and read her previous guest post, “The Privilege to Be Among Them.”