When I was younger, I made a habit of serious self-examination at least once a year, usually on my birthday, but sometimes with fellow travelers of the Gregorian calendar, on the cusp of the New Year.
This stock-taking served as a kind of annual spiritual to complement the yearly physical examination physicians recommend. Folks active in the 12-Step movement would describe it as a “fearless moral inventory,’’ though I doubt my attempts at self-betterment were exceptionally moral and recall clearly they were not fearless.
Still, I tried. I believed in the examined life, in truth and the possibility of what Ralph Waldo Emerson called the “grandeur of character (that) acts in the dark.’’
I don’t recall when or why I abandoned this ritual. I know only that it became one of the many insidious casualties of grown-up life, a commitment made optional, then absent by a cacophony of competing interests. “Life goes headlong,’’ Emerson wrote. “We chase some flying scheme, or we are hunted by some fear or command behind us.’’
Admittedly, my conscious attempts to chart an upward trajectory have not been much missed by others, private as they were and limited in success. But as another Jan. 1 approaches, I’ve found myself missing them. Idealistic as the resolution ritual is, it asks us to be better than we are, to live consciously in a culture that invites somnambulism and apathy. And for a time – maybe even for a long time – we are.
Some years ago, a friend gave me a refresher course in the power of conscious living – and dying. Cancer had engaged Lyn in a long battle of attrition; any hope she had of prevailing faded when an experimental dietary therapy made her weaker, not stronger. As her condition deteriorated, Lyn checked herself into hospice.
Then she let her friends know they should come, that she was saying her good-byes. The cancer had advanced pell-mell, and there was nothing left of health or possibility – not in this world, anyway. At 54, Lyn was gaunt and fragile, an arm’s reach from death.
But she was calm and clear when I visited that last time. We spoke briefly and simply. We said we were glad to have known one another. I told her she would be missed and remembered. She said she would remember me, too.
And as I walked out of the room, I called back to her — not “See you, soon’’ or, “I’ll call you tomorrow,’’ but, “Goodbye, Lyn.’’
And her voice came back to me, clear and strong: “Goodbye, Cate.’’
She died five days later, on the winter solstice, having given those who knew her this rare gift: the chance to be conscious with her in the last days of her humanity, to speak honestly with her about some small piece of her life in full view of the death speeding toward her.
Let me say I lack Lyn’s bravery. I hope to die in a car crash I don’t see coming, to have my spirit blown out of my body with such abrupt force that it regains consciousness, clueless but composed, 10 miles down the interstate. Or, if I’m destined for a long life, to die peacefully in my sleep. The disease option is apt to leave me curled in the fetal position, sniveling my way toward eternity.
For now, though, I’m considering only the more prosaic but still remarkable prospect of living more mindfully. Which brings me back to the notion of introspection and honesty, and promises to the self that at this turn of the calendar we call resolutions.
Perhaps I’ll return to my old ways in that regard, once more look carefully within: shine a light in the dark corners; sow again what has lain fallow. I’ll renew my efforts to live the way Lyn died, consciously and courageously. I’ll make a resolution or two that will ask me to be better than I am.
And I will be, for a time — maybe a long time.