Wednesday, December 30, 2009

What Really Matters

Janus, the two-faced god of gateways in Roman mythology, gives us the word January, as well as the word janitor, which originally meant gatekeeper or keeper of the keys. Anyone else thinking about Zuul the Gatekeeper and Vinz Clortho the Key Master from Ghostbusters right now? Tell me I’m not alone here.

Janus looks forward and backward at once, anticipating the future while still considering the past. As do all the ancient gods, Janus represents a very real and deep impulse in humans, and what better time of year to reflect on the past and anticipate the future than the depths of winter, when, really, what else are we going to do?

In the media, lists reign this time of year. Top Ten News Stories. Top Ten Movies. Top Ten Scandals. Top Ten Best-Selling Books. Top Ten Athletes. Celebrity Deaths. Celebrity Babies. Celebrity Divorces.

While these lists may be mildly entertaining to read, I’m more interested in a different perspective on the year past. Nance in Reno sent me a link to an NPR commentary by David Stipeck, who asks his listeners to consider the following question: “How did I do in the areas that really matter?”

What really matters? Financial success? Popularity? Celebrity? How many times Tiger cheated on his wife? Those lists in the newspapers and magazines and websites have it all wrong. What really matters is more personal and individual, at least for those of us fortunate enough to live in places of peace and freedom. What really matters is how we treat others, how we help those who need it, how we make the world in our small spheres of influence a better place.

Back in the Dark Ages when I was a teenager, I came across a list of things a person should do every single day to be happy:

1) do something good for your body,
2) do something good for your mind,
3) do something good for your soul,
4) do something good for someone else,
5) do something good for the world.

At first glance, the list seems pretty self-centered, but without a healthy body, mind, and soul, how can you do something for someone else or for the world? This list pretty much covers what really matters: our physical, mental, and spiritual health; our kindness and compassion to others; and our duty to make the world a better place.

Let’s get back to Stipeck’s question: “How did I do in the areas that really matter?” I’m going to share my answers to this question but invite you to think of your own answers and, if you are comfortable doing so, to share them in the comments.

My body got short shrift this year. Going for my annual ride in the stirrups a few weeks ago made me realize how little I’ve exercised and how much junk I’ve eaten. Looking back in this case shows up my failure to attend to something that really matters. Looking forward, I must do better.

My mind flourished, largely because it has always been hyperactive and demanded large chunks of my attention. Sometimes, I wish it would just shut up. Maybe then I would exercise more.

My soul, however, got quite the refreshing workout this year. I took a Disciple II class at church and learned more about my faith than ever before. It made me hungry for more, and I’m eagerly awaiting the next year-long class that will start in January.

Looking outside ourselves to others’ needs is reflexive for parents, but now that my children are older and don’t require the intensive daily care required to keep infants and toddlers and preschoolers from killing themselves, I have tried to look a bit farther out. My focus is, of course, still close to family and home, but my church and community provide plenty of opportunity to help others and the world in ways that matter.

Mother Teresa said, “We cannot all do great things, but we can all do small things with great love.” Smart lady, don’t you think? There are ALWAYS small things to do with great love…so many, in fact, that this can seem an impossible task. What possible difference could a couple of hours volunteering each week at the school library make in the grand scheme of life, the universe, and everything?

Well, if we were alone in the universe, this point of view might be valid. But we’re not alone. There are billions of us.

The Cake Wrecks blog demonstrated the power of many people doing little things in its charity push this Christmas by asking its readers to donate $1 a day for twelve days to twelve different charities. At last count a few days ago, the effort has raised over $75,000 for charities large and small.

That’s a lot of cake.

The message here is powerful. If we each do our little bit of work to help others and the world, we’ll make a big difference in the way the world works.

A bunch of simple, small things add up: recycling, turning off lights, driving less; voting and staying informed on issues affecting national, state, and local government; sending money to worthy charities doing work abroad and at home; buying a meal for the man with a sign outside McDonalds or giving diapers to the man whose grandchild needs them; serving meals in a soup kitchen; paying the toll for the driver behind you; smiling at a stranger; acknowledging others’ efforts. The list is easy and endless, so dive right in wherever it feels right to you.

Stipeck says that our good deeds have “probably made a greater impact than we ever realize.” Sometimes, our good deeds are acknowledged and we feel a glow of satisfaction. Sometimes, people discourage us from good deeds, citing charity rip-offs and lazy malingerers and thieves who take advantage of our charitable impulses. Sometimes, our good deeds are not acknowledged, and we may feel angry about that and stop doing them out of spite.

As we look back at the past year, let’s do what Stipeck says. Let’s celebrate our successes and acknowledge our failures as learning experiences prodding us in the right direction. Let’s have faith that our good deeds--large or small, rewarded or unacknowledged--did make a difference.

On January 1st, let’s channel our inner Janus. Look back on what really mattered in 2009 and forward to what really matters in 2010.

As for the rest, let it be.


  1. Preach on Sister. One of my favorite images of Christ is Him standing between the years. He casts his light on the one before us and his shadow on the one behind us. Makes you feel like moving forward and casting some light of your own.

  2. I did not know about Janus and somehow feel immensely comforted by a god who looks forward and back at once. I am not a worrier and try to live in the present, but in middle age I'm always looking over my shoulder and then looking forward and hoping I have enough time...

    I like the list of five things to do to be happy. Spot on.


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