The Common Good

A New Year's Challenge in the Wake of Sandy Hook

The New Year is upon us and it is time for us to participate in the yearly tradition of setting new goals and listing our resolutions. Even if you deny it, I suspect that when that calendar year rolls over there is some part of your brain where you ask yourself a few questions … about things that you want to change, do differently, tasks you want to tackle this year.

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Isabel Lebron holds son Izaiah Taylor at a memorial with donated Christmas trees honoring victims. Mario Tama/Getty Images

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We poke fun at the tradition mostly because we all do it and most of us will break resolutions within a month, but I still argue that the process itself is valuable. We had BETTER be investing time into goal setting for “where there is no vision the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18, KJB). Another translation says: “Where there is no vision the people are unrestrained” (NASB). Still another says: “Without revelation the people run wild” (HCSB).

In fact, the meeting of the goals or following through on the resolution perfectly is not necessarily the point. It is about re-establishing your trajectory. It about re-aligning your life with your values. It about re-setting your course.

I have heard it said that an airplane is off course 95 percent of the time during flight. The entire journey of the airplane is about re-aligning its position. The pilot’s job is as much about correction as it is about a perfect landing at the destination.

Goal setting, re-establishing our trajectory should be a habitual part of our life with veering off course seen not as something to be ashamed of, but as a normal part of human existence. A careful, loving, daily journey of self-correction is as much our job as adults as wherever we “land” in life … our “destination." Probably more so. Healthy adults grow to appreciate gentle correction even if it is uncomfortable. They expect it on an almost daily basis.

As much as goal setting and resolutions should be a habitual part of life rather than a one time yearly event, we make a lot of mistakes at the stage of identifying goals. Perhaps it is because we only do it one time a year and are out of practice, but 9 times out of 10 our mistakes are to make the goals too big and too general.

“I want to lose all of my baby weight this year!”

“I want to work harder and do better at my job!”

“I want to become a better Christian!”

“I want to be a great mom (or dad) to my kids!”

“I want to spend more time with the family!”

“I want to travel!”

“I want to start becoming the person I know I am supposed to be!”

“I want to win more people to the Lord!”

Obviously this list includes good aspirations. However, mostly they are too “big” and too general

You gained your baby weight over the course of 10 years of having children. You want to lose it all in one year? Ok, well how are you going to do that?

You want to work harder and better at your job. How?

You want to be a better Christian. A better dad. Spend more time with the family. Travel.

How? When? Where?

I once heard a sermon by Dr. Paul Conn, president of Lee University, where he summed it up nicely: “Dream Big. Work Small."

We need big dreams to keep us motivated, but we must have the short-term goals to keep us from “getting wild” or living “unrestrained” (Proverbs 29:18).

Let’s start with the short-term aspects of spending more time with the family. How will that look today? This week? What specific changes will you make to your schedule to get to the end of 2013 and feel good about the progress you made on this bigger goal?

Hmmm. That is a lot harder. Those daily changes call us out and demand real action. Not just feel-good ideas.

As Americans we are good at making big dreams, big plans. We like things big. When we lived in Prague, Czech Republic, we found a frozen pizza in the market in Prague that was huge compared to the other pizzas in the freezer section. It was called the “Big American." We like things big (houses, cars, checkbooks … dreams ... debt) and we are well known for this character flaw trait.

I venture to say that as American evangelical Christians we are influenced by this cultural theme. “Go big or go home” I have heard athletes say. We want to do something big for God and the Christian life can look more like a sporting venture than a faith journey.

I am wondering if God is more interested in the small things we do for God every day.

I wonder if God cherishes our big dreams and even smiles at the big plans of God's children, but is PROUD when God sees them living life day in and day out in small, disciplined, loving, others-first ways.

Our big dreams and goals are usually emotionally driven and success seeking … success that puts us on a stage with a spotlight.

So often we wonder: is my big dream from God? How can I tell?

Maybe we can tell by how “small” we work towards it day in and day out.

The new year is upon us and I am thinking about my goals — my dreams for 2013. I am thinking about my life spiritually, emotionally, mentally, financially, and physically — some of the many parts of my self — and I am asking myself how I need to re-align my course. How can I alter my trajectory this year? I work to not feel shame about where I went off course this past year, remembering that correction is a daily, human need.

I am thinking about the small goals needed to make my bigger goals — goals that are actually more like 10-year and life-time goals — happen. In the midst of thinking about small goals I realize that one of the changes I want to make is simply to live smaller.

I think there is virtue in a life lived small.

Facebook tells us that we can know everyone and keep up with everybody from our past and all realms of life in a real and meaningful way.

It just isn’t true.

One very small thing I have already done to move toward this “living small” is to take Facebook off of my phone.

The truth is that I wish I could live in California, Prague, Germany, (all former places of residence for me) and Cleveland all at the same time. Staying in contact with my loved ones from these places is important. I would even love to be accessible and in contact with 1,500 people on a daily, almost constant, basis.

However, the 24 hour a day accessibility and hyper-connectivity isn’t realistic and I don’t think it is healthy for me.

And, in the process I might miss something in my small life … like the person next to me in the waiting room who needs a smile. The friend I pass in church who needs a hug.

Taking Facebook off of my phone (notice I did not say out of my life altogether!) is just one small, but significant, choice in living smaller.

I haven’t said much about the Sandy Hook tragedy and I doubt I will. I am stunned and saddened speechless for now.

But, in the midst of all the talk of gun control and mental illness, I find myself wanting to live smaller.

There are no answers to this tragedy, but I think the searching for them is still a healthy part of the process we all need as we grieve as a nation. We need to talk things out, ask the “why’s” and “what can we change."  We need this talk, these questions. We do.

And, like my husband so poignantly said to me one evening as we grappled with the fear, the anxiety, and the questions, we need to turn those questions around on ourselves. “What can I change?”

Some, like Mike Huckabee, offered a cultural critique in response, but in the end I think it is so important that we realize that we all as individuals contribute to this national tragedy even if we live thousands of miles away because WE are what makes up this culture.

You. I.

Not a “them” or a “they”.

US.

So, I have asked myself how I can change ME.

I want to live smaller.

Maybe in living smaller I will notice a mother or a child who needs extra attention and care.

Maybe on my community watch they won’t get lost, fall between the cracks.

I grieve and cry over the Sandy Hook tragedy. I grieve and look around to blame and I end up back with myself. I lament and repent … for living a life too big to love in all of the small, important ways. For being too concerned with my own big dreams and my own big goals.

Working and living small. It isn’t just about reaching a destination in measured, daily, disciplined ways. It is about living a virtuous, meaningful, spiritually disciplined life in all the right ways.

Think about THAT when you dream your dreams and make your New Year’s resolutions.

The planet doesn’t need more ‘successful' people. But it does desperately need more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of every shape and form. It needs people who will live well in their places. It needs people of moral courage willing to join the fight to make the world habitable and humane. And these needs have little to do with success as our culture has defined it.

- David Orr in Earth in Mind

Emily Stone, mother of four and a pastor's spouse, is a professor and license marriage and family therapist. She and her husband write about faith and life at www.stonewritten.com

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