Ah, January: the self-help month. I’ve read enough ’12 ways to make your 2016 the best year yet’ and ’54 bad habits you must absolutely stop doing this year’ to know that self-improvement is primarily concerned with only two things: firstly, ‘positive life change’ advice is overwhelmingly concerned with things you can do for yourself, in isolation from everyone else – from the innocuous (and generally quite sensible) advice to take a little more ‘quiet’ time this year, to the frankly damaging ‘drop those friends who tire you out/don’t have your goals’. Secondly, advice that does acknowledge the existence of other humans who might require some of your time still tends to be extremely self-centric: the kind of advice like ‘go to the gym with a friend. It will help motivate you’ or even ‘volunteer at a local shelter. It will give you a sense of purpose and will boost your CV’. Very rarely is there mention of what you might have to offer the other person.
This isn’t to say that community life and volunteer work aren’t good for you, too – but I want to challenge my own motivations for service this month, partly by acknowledging that we are constantly receiving: by giving we are simply growing that which we have already received, often undeservedly. Particularly for those of us who want to work in the non-profit or justice sectors ‘when we grow up’, volunteer work can become a means to a ‘greater’ end, rather than being a worthy end in itself. We might be nearing the end of January, and your new year’s resolution (if you had one at all) might already have been broken, but it’s not too late to shift our attitudes towards the work we’re already involved in. New starts don’t always require new things.
January can feel exhausting: we might feel as though we’ve failed to meet targets from the year before, and we’re facing a whole new year with fresh challenges and worries. It might feel as though the collective pressure to invent some resolution of change (and the following expectation that you won’t keep it up) stifles any genuine desire to follow through on altered perspectives or habits.
We watch summaries of 2015, all the suffering and trouble and unrest and unkindness, and we are fearful of what 2016 will bring. Or it might feel exciting: the old year is gone, and this year might be an improvement! Suddenly, we have time to start again!
We mark years by reflecting on celebrations and injustices, by counting the losses and the triumphs of the last 12 months. 2016 is not ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than 2015 was simply through bringing us to the beginning of our calendar year, but it is significant in the meaning we bestow on it. After all, its meaning is subject to our interpretation of what is meaningful: if we decide that the beginning of January is meaningful in offering an opportunity to examine our internal priorities, then it is.
Rev. John Magee Fellow, Dwight Hall at Yale
M.A.R. World Christianities, Yale Divinity School