Decades ago, I was a reporter in Albany, N.Y., working for a newspaper at the foot of a hill that could be ascended only with huffing, puffing, knee endangerment and sweat unless you employed a trick.
It was this. You first went down a flight of stairs from the newsroom to the composing room, left by a backdoor, went across a metal walkway and a littered stretch of earth to the bottom floor of an adjacent office building and took the elevator up several levels. You then emerged minus wear or tear out of a front door to a sidewalk on the top of that now humbled hill in the otherwise proud capital of the Empire State.
The best part of this electronically eased conquest, however, was not exiting the elevator at a happy height, but rather a poster on the wall of the floor where the elevator was entered.
“Today,” it said, “is the first day of the rest of your life.”
Everyone has encountered that saying many times, right? I hadn’t until someone showed me the shortcut. And while the sentence initially struck me as somehow too cute to be profound, it worked on me as a positive, energizing reminder that unsullied beginnings and novel opportunities could be as much a matter of attitude as of circumstance. It even got to where those words would automatically prod a cheerful meditative moment figuratively consonant with my rise in the elevator.
If there are many excuses besides a poster for that attitude to announce itself— and I think there are probably quite a few—none quite equals the advent of a new year. What’s this number I keep hearing? 2011? Wow! That’s the first year of the rest of my life, a perfect pretext to shed the past and put on the future.
While the past for most of us has multiple grand attributes, all manner of personal regrets may reside there, too: Things that should not have been said or done, missed chances, pointlessly sour moods, self-destructive habits, a stale, wearied outlook that pushed us from the adventure of life, and, sadly, more, much more.
We are nonetheless like mythical Phoenix birds. It may not always be easy to locate it, but we do seem to have a capacity to rise from the ashes of the old self to a revitalized self, to see the world bright, shiny and new as it engages us with its fascinating plenitude and we discover possibilities both in and outside ourselves where we previously thought the road had come to an end. We then wake up as if from sleep with hope and a determination to make more of all that comes our way.
Enter the practice of framing New Year resolutions, of the terrific things we want to do for ourselves and should do for others, and yes, I know, some pooh-pooh this, saying you hardly need a calendar convention to fix issues that you probably won’t fix anyway.
Maybe, but maybe not, and here’s the thing: The counsel of defeatism is always with us, and if you heed it—guess what?—you will be defeated for sure.
Back in Albany, I first off wondered who was this Pollyanna busybody who put up the bottom-floor poster, thinking it OK to intrude on gloom and negativity, gratuitously lifting spirits. If the person is still around, I’d like to say I not only forgive you, I thank you.
And I would also like to express my gratitude for many of the New Year traditions— those resolutions, the fireworks, for everything that adds up to a widely conveyed sense that something great is around the corner, that the past is past and now we have a new year as full of potential as an infant, a sunrise year, a virgin year, a year allowing for a fresh start for those eager to give it a try.
Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado and a Centennial Institute Fellow. E-mail him at speaktoJay@aol.com.