Happy New Year

By the time this column hits print, it will be the year 2001—a new year, or new millennium, depending upon how one calculates commencement of the latter.

By the time this column hits print, it will be the year 2001—a new year, or new millennium, depending upon how one calculates commencement of the latter.
The earnest among us make “New Year’s Resolutions” geared to self-improvement. Mine generally begin with “lose weight” and “work out every day” and proceed to such exciting admonitions as “learn how to use the features on my cell phone” and “be more patient when my students just don’t get it.” My sample of other people’s resolutions is admittedly unscientific, but my strong impression is that most of us set these kinds of very personal goals for ourselves, when we make resolutions at all.
What if, for this New Year, we did something different? What if, rather than trying to improve ourselves, we resolved to improve the world—or at least, life in our respective neighborhoods and cities? What might our lists look like?
When I tried my hand at such a list, here’s what I came up with.
Resolved: This year, I will support organizations that are trying to help others. I will give money to those groups, but even more important, I will give them my time and effort. The members of the ICLU, Lambda, HRC and Pflag are working hard for equal rights for gays and lesbians, but they can’t do it alone. Environmental groups depend on the willingness of all of us to recycle, to speak up, and to write our elected officials about conservation policies. Charities have been established to help stamp out everything from drunk driving to cancer, and most need lots of help. Somewhere in all that activity is a goal I care about. This year, I will not stop at being the beneficiary of actions and donations by others; I will be an actor and a donor. I will be a giver as well as a taker.
Resolved: This year, I will give those who disagree with me the benefit of the doubt. I will listen to their arguments and try to see their side; if I cannot, I will disagree respectfully, and in a manner that will not do harm to important long-term goals and coalitions. I will remind myself that someone can be on the other side of an argument or just make an honest mistake without being an evil person.
Resolved: When I hear hate, I will speak up. I will refuse to laugh at the “funny” joke my co-worker tells about the dumb Pole, or the wetback, or the sharp-dealing Jew, or the lazy Black, or the limp-wristed queen. I won’t be unpleasant or make a scene, but I will signal my disapproval. I will not allow my silence to be taken as affirmation.
Resolved: I will reach out to those who are more needy, whether financially or emotionally. I will make a genuine effort to be pleasant, helpful and cheerful. When I am stuck in traffic, or cornered at a party, or hassled by relatives or put upon by coworkers, I will recognize that a bad attitude won’t change the situation, that it doesn’t take any more energy to be graceful than it does to be petulant—and that what goes around has an uncanny way of coming around.
Resolved: I will participate in the political process. I will recognize that government is the mechanism through which we address our communal concerns, and that government will be no better or worse than the people we elect to it. I will take the time to listen to candidates for public office, and to explore the issues they raise, recognizing that bumper sticker slogans are no substitute for genuine thought and that most policies cannot be adequately examined or debated in thirty-second sound-bites. When political parties or candidates use unfair or unethical tactics, when they use code words to demean minorities or otherwise demonstrate unworthiness for the public trust, I will express my disappointment and vote accordingly, rather than “turning off” or “dropping out.”
Resolved: I will be someone who does his/her share. I won’t be a free-rider.

To use the Yiddish phrase, I’ll try hard to be a mentsh—loosely and inadequately translated as “a real human being. And a world full of mentshes would be a better world.
Happy New Year.