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A new year is like a stop sign on the road

Published January 09. 2010 09:00AM

Did you ever get the feeling that life is like traveling non-stop, full speed ahead on a freeway?

Life goes by in a fast blur.

That's why the start of every New Year is more than a date on the calendar. To me, each New Year functions like a big stop sign in life the kind that used to be in front of every train track, telling us to stop, look and listen.

I use the start of every New Year to pause and examine my life, deciding what I need to change or improve.

I know. You're probably thinking that sounds like making New Year's resolutions. In a sense it is. But it's more than that, too. It's setting important goals for myself. One might call it my own serious self-improvement project.

But before I can do that, I have to think about my life and the direction I am traveling. I have to weigh the baggage I carry with me on this trip called life. And I have to decide what to keep, what to throw away, or what to change.

Ahhh, change. It's a word many of us shy away from because the status quo is comfortable and change is hard.

I know because for several years in a row my main New Year's resolution was to embrace change. After my husband died, I spent time wishing nothing had changed in my life. But when you lose a long-time spouse, everything changes, whether we want it to or not.

One year, I made the important decision to embrace change instead of protesting against it. That year, I managed to change my attitude and got more open to changes of all kind. But it took three years until I could finally fully embrace change and regard it as an opportunity instead of a burden.

As part of embracing change, I moved to Florida. Here I learned the old adage is true: When you close one door, you are free to open others. Among the many doors I opened were the opportunity for a more active lifestyle and the chance to enjoy the outdoors year round.

In the process of doing exactly that, I found what I never expected to find again. I found a soul mate.

Now, as I sit here making New Year's resolutions with a shiny new wedding ring on my finger, I'm reflecting on the fact that the ring will not always look so new. Eventually, no matter how hard I try to prevent it, the ring will get scratched and the stones may dull. I will have to work to protect the ring and keep it polished.

The same is true of the marriage itself. It will take work to protect it and keep it sparkling. To do exactly that is my main New Year's resolution.

That vow will be much easier to keep than my second resolution, which calls for a major attitude change on my part.

To explain, let me tell you about a stress-reduction conference I attended. The psychologist giving the workshop said most people would have fewer problems if they could eliminate two phrases from their way of thinking: He called it "shoulda and coulda", or, to be more precise, should have and could have.

He said we spend too much of our time thinking about what others should do. Or we think about how the lives of others would improve if they could make the changes we think they should.

In reality, it's unproductive to try to change others, he said, because the only person we have the power to change is our self.

He equated trying to change someone else's behavior to trying to teach a pig to sing. "All it does is waste your time and annoy the pig," he said.

At the time, his "shoulda and coulda" talk didn't resonate with me. I've always known the only person I have the power to change is myself.

Yet, lately I've come to realize that as a friend or relative tells me about problems in their lives, I often say, "You should do this or you could do that."

I don't leave it at only giving casual advice, especially when it comes to my own daughter. I find myself saying all too often, "You should do this," or, "You could improve your life if you did such and such." Then I get frustrated when she doesn't take my advice.

This isn't something I've always done. It's just a bad habit that drifted in.

I forgot the simple fact that I can only control my own actions and I have no right to judge how someone else should react to a particular situation.

So, at the start of this New Year, as I use the season as a stop sign to slow down and look both ways before continuing, I'm resolving to stop thinking about what someone else should do.

I'm resolving to recognize the differences in the way people solve their own problems. I have enough of a challenge to clean up my own bad habits so I can forget about someone else's.

Will I keep my resolutions? That remains to be seen but one thing is clear. Recognizing a problem is half the distance to solving it.

Isn't it nice to have a clean slate and a new start?

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