Sydney J. Harris wrote for the Chicago Daily News and, later, the Chicago Sun-Times. He also authored 11 books and a syndicated column, Strictly Personal, that was regular reading for me when I was growing up.
In 1980, he penned a New Year’s message focusing on those resolutions we love to make and so easily break. My friend, Russ White, got some well deserved credit when he shared his tattered copy with Detroit Free Press columnist, Bob Talbert, in 1988. Russ includes Bob’s piece in his annual holiday letter. It’s good stuff and deserves a wider audience.
As you think about your goals for the New Year, ponder Sydney’s timeless wisdom. It’s as valuable today as it was when he first wrote it. And thanks to Russ for always keeping it front of mind.
To remember that we all basically want the same things, and our differences of opinion are less fundamental than our similarities of need.
To stop blaming ‘them’ for what is wrong with the world, and to examine more honestly and scrupulously our own failure to live up to our beliefs and ideals.
To respect goodness as much as we despise evil – otherwise, it becomes too easy to turn into a hater instead of a healer.
To keep in mind at all times that ‘justice’ is a seamless web, and not until we defend and assure justice for others do we gain the right lo claim it for ourselves.
To know that real strength most often discloses itself in gentleness, and weakness in furious aggression.
To refrain from self congratulations in contributing to charity – rather, to work for the elimination of the underlying conditions that continue to make such a charity necessary.
To say no more than we know, to speak no more than what we mean, and to give others as much the benefit of the doubt as we expect from them.
To cease imagining that we can improve conditions by ‘doing’ more than we do, without at the same time ‘becoming’ more than we are.
To understand that what we loosely call freedom is not a personal attribute, but a social relation – and that the optimum of freedom for everyone depends on self-imposed restrictions democratically arrived at.
To look beyond the transitory issues that divide us, and grasp for the permanent ends that unite us – not in mere sentimentality, but as a sheer matter of survival of our self-destructive species.
To recognize and admit our prejudices freely, and – if it is beyond our power to extirpate them – to discount them as realistically as we discount our limitations of eyesight or hearing or taste buds.
To accept the hard moral truth that from the moment we do anything credible in the anticipation of applause or popularity, we have forfeited our right to such credit.
To stop justifying selfishness because ‘the world is a jungle’ – for it can also be a garden depending on whether one wants to plant and water, or to plunder and uproot.
Finally, to treat people as if they were what they ought to be, which is the only way to help them become what they can be.
As we enter the new year, may we all remember that, as individuals, we may not be responsible for solving all the world’s ills, but we are responsible for contributing to their solutions. If we do, we will likely earn the enmity of false friends and, as Kent Keith might say, “get kicked in the teeth”.
Do good things anyway.
Every major breakthrough began as a single idea, born in the mind of one person who had the courage to share it.
If you make only one resolution this year, resolve to be that person.