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This Year, Make a Resolution About Something Bigger Than Yourself

New Year’s resolutions are penny-ante prayers. You are this way, but you hope to be that way. You used to want this, but now you want that.

The assumption behind resolutions is that something must be corrected and improved. One vows to be better than one was the year before.

Part of the nature ofresolutions, particularly for those of us north of 60, has to do not only with the New Year before us, but also with time already spent, or misspent.

We reflect on the years we’ve lived, on the past resolutions made and broken. Another New Year’s Eve come and gone. Every time the ball drops, the heart sinks. You are running out of time, and time is what we value most.

The historian-philosopher Lewis Mumford believed that the clock, not the steam engine, was the principal machine of the industrial age because time has a commanding relationship to the expenditure of human energy, and thus to any product itself. From the start, the essence of industry has been that things run on time. Time touches everything in life, even love. The fundamental things apply.

Thus there is always a melancholic desperation and urgency when we shout, “Happy New Year!” Will this new year, in fact, be any better than the last? We resolve that it will. We resolve to be fitter, healthier, cleverer, richer, more successful, more popular, more productive, better dressed, happier. And so restarts the whole vain, foolish, inevitably disappointing cycle.

The trouble with all such self-oriented promises is that they deal in chicken feed. What does the great wide world care if you lose weight, or work out, or work harder, or quit drinking or smoking.?

Quit smoking or smoke three packs a day. Work out daily or let yourself go. It’s your choice, your life. Your little life. Meanwhile, the world — the whole tortured, self-destructive, polarized, endangered, extraordinary world — spins on.

What if, instead of planning our exercise regimens, we focused our intentions on all that is undesirable in human activity — wars, bigotry, brutality, the despoiling of the earth — and sought to address it. What if instead of making a milquetoast resolution, we made airtight commitments?

In “Leaves of Grass,” Walt Whitman writes: “This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to everyone who asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy.” He continues, “re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem.’’

So, there. If you’re looking for a worthwhile resolution, Whitman is not a bad place to start.

The task of improving the world may seem impossible, but it isn’t. All it takes is the proper sequence of correct discrete decisions. Decisions are just resolutions with teeth.

An editor of mine told me a story from his childhood on his grandparents’ farm in Iowa. The little boy, looking out over acres and acres of corn, asked his grandfather, “How are we going to shuck all that corn?” His grandfather said, “One row at a time.”

This, too, is how to improve the world. And we can start small.

Personally, I vow that I will frequently visit a children’s hospital and try to distract kids with stories, the funnier the better. I vow that I will phone every lonely person I know — and there are plenty — at least twice a week, just to chat and make them feel part of the living world. I vow to give alms to everyone who asks, and to those who don’t, and to stand up for the stupid and crazy, the stupider and crazier the better. I promise to keep an eye out for strays (cats, dogs and people) and bring them safety and comfort. I vow to see every wrong as a menace, every wound an opportunity.

What will you do — right now, this week, this month — to make a better world? Stage a protest. Send a letter to right a wrong, or to proffer friendship. (A thoughtful, sympathetic letter to a friend in sorrow or distress is a powerful thing.) Lend a hand. Offer a word of comfort or inspiration or support or love. Donate money or, most valuable of all, time. There are so many ways to move this world, right within reach.

The great beautiful irony of all this, of course, is that selflessness is not the opposite of self-improvement. Selflessness is self-improvement — the most meaningful and lasting kind.

Practice it, and you may just find that the New Year is, in fact, a step up from the last. You may find that, all at once, you look and feel better than you would have after any amount of dieting or exercise. Unburdened of ego. Lighter on your feet. Say! Haven’t you lost weight?

Practice it, and suddenly you will find that your little life has gotten big. Big life, grand life is like art. It is not done well unless the artist dreams expansively, ridiculously, by making a glorious Whitman-size fool of herself in seeking to enhance everything, cure every ill. Nothing less.

At an event a couple of months ago, someone asked me why I wrote something the way I did, and I found myself blurting out, “To save the world.” It was laughable, preposterous and true.

Roger Rosenblatt is the author, most recently, of “Cataract Blues: Running the Keyboard.”

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