Saturday, December 31, 2011

Making This a Truly New Year

“To regret deeply,” said Thoreau, “is to live afresh.”

There is as much meaning and wisdom in those few words as there is energy compressed into the nucleus of an atom. One could commission books of essays explicating the fuller meaning of those seven words and happily engage our greatest minds in the task to great literary, spiritual and psychological effect. Doing justice to them in short form is impossible but, for philanthropy’s sake at the cusp of a new year, I will try.

Erring, to paraphrase a poet, is innately human. In fact, it is essential to learning. The value of experience is derived largely from what we learn from the accumulation of mistakes, punctuated with the occasional failure. It’s much like quantitative analysis, a field of study born in World War II when some brainy types sought ways to increase the survival rate of Allied bombers conducting raids over Germany. When the bombers returned, they analyzed where enemy flak had done the greatest damage so they could advise the aircraft manufacturers where to increase the armor plating. That was until some particularly bright soul said, “Wait a minute. It doesn’t matter how much damage was done; these bombers made it back. We won’t learn where the fatal weaknesses are unless or until we dredge the failures out of the sea.” We learn a lot more from the gaping holes of our failures than from the inevitable flak that we catch, and survive, in the day-to-day pursuit of our ambitions.

If we take honest stock of ourselves and regret those times we let others down, when we fell well short of what we could be, or when our petty emotions overruled what Lincoln called “the angels of our better nature,” we can begin to convert failure into wisdom and growth. The more deeply we regret our shortcomings, the firmer we are in our resolve to learn from them and to make amends.

According to custom, we reserve this time of year, when old earth comes into the last bend of another lap around the sun, to review and reflect. At the moment when one year turns into the next, we sing of “auld lang syne” or “times gone by,” then formulate our resolutions for the new year. In so doing, we try to ensure that the next revolution around the sun will have more meaning than the last.

The strongest leaders of philanthropy-seeking organizations will use this time to reflect on and regret those times they allowed themselves or their charges to lose sight of their founding mission and those who were to be served by it. They will ask themselves if they might have fallen prey to vanity and become caught up in the trappings of their office or the pursuit of status. They will reflect on where they might have missed the chance to make a bigger difference or failed to make a modest sacrifice that would have inched their cause closer to its ideals. Yes, in every human organization, the initial resolve to prove its societal worth and to justly earn the support of others can gradually erode into complacent expectation or even righteous entitlement. Few can see it happen. Fewer still can acknowledge when it has and begin to turn it around. It is easier to claim to be a victim of circumstance than to own up to a pride-induced fall.

The strongest of us will use this time to ask how much of the past year we lived for ourselves and how much for others. We will ask how often we used our God-given advantages, both personal and cultural, for our aggrandizement or to ease the load for the least of us. If we take the time to reflect, we will realize how much we have been given and regret that we did not do more. We will resolve to do more in the new year, to use our unique talents to make difference where a difference most needs to be made.

The tougher the questions we ask ourselves, the more honest our answers, the deeper our regret for our failings, the more firmly we will fix our resolve on making this a truly new year afresh with purpose, possibility and meaning.

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