What Does Success Look Like This Year?

Success and Keeping OnI bought Alan Bennett’s latest book last month. I’m thinking of using the title, Keeping On Keeping On, as my New Year’s Resolution, as in, “This year, I think I’ll ‘keep on keeping on’.”

It’s the time of the New Year Honours, and whatever the spread of gongs, we notice the famous in the lists. They were successful, and that’s the message: if you work really hard, you can be successful too and win your gong. Make your resolutions: be bold and ambitious; demonstrate toughness and resilience; meet the right people; go get that prize.

Most of us want to be special, and this ambition suggests that most of us deep down fear that currently we’re a bit ordinary. Funny that – I now prefer to put that the other way around – realising that we’re all amazing and special, and our better task might be to get rid of our ego and find the ordinary in ourselves.

Upside down that might seem, but it’s been an upside down world this last year. Events have frequently demonstrated the worst in our leaders, and the aftermath fills us with fear for the coming year. If the kind of leadership demonstrated last year is special – if egotistical power-loving behaviour is “special”, who wants it?

What about a different goal for an important year – the ambition to be kind, for example? Now that would really be something.

I see much that is kind in Alan Bennett. Not just that he moved “the lady in the van” parked in the road outside his house into his garden and didn’t even consider it an act of charity; not just that he donated his archive to the Bodleian Library as a gesture of thanks to the British welfare state that had given him educational opportunities that his parents would otherwise never have afforded. Not his northern ‘of the people’ accent. More that in his autobiographical books and indeed all his writing his humanity and kindness shine out on every page.

Maybe for many, your New Year resolutions this year are to achieve particular goals and targets. But for others, this may not be your year for reaching goals, but for keeping on keeping on. Maybe you have parents becoming frailer, children needing you more, friends who are unwell or distressed, maybe your own mind and body demand your attention? These don’t have to be impediments to your goals – maybe they contain the pearl of great price for you this year.

Or maybe, as you make your resolutions, you reflect that you have made these same resolutions before, even many times – you’ve travelled and travelled, yet you’re back in the same old place again.

There’s a thought-provoking poem by Denise Levertov, called For Those Whom the Gods Love Less. (Hear her reading it here.) The title comes from a Greek saying that those whom the gods love die young. So those who live longer … Anyway, the poem begins:

When you discover
your new work travels the ground you had traversed
decades ago, you wonder, panicked,
‘Have I outlived my vocation? Said already
all that was mine to say?’

Don’t panic, she reassures. You might feel that it’s the same every year, but even in repetition the light falls differently and “radiant epiphanies recur”. She urges, “You can, you must proceed.”

TS Eliot, whose complete poems Jeremy Irons (there’s a voice!) has been reading all this week on Radio 4, declares, “the end of all our exploring Will be to arrive where we started And know the place for the first time.”

So, maybe for you it’s your year to step aside from the Hero’s Journey for a moment; to draw back a little from the yoga stretch or your target in the gym, to go easy on your BHAG (big hairy ambitious goal), and find an “ordinary” resolution – maybe merely the resolution to be kind? (Or to be loving or peaceful or generous or grateful?) Now wouldn’t that be extraordinary? Special even.

Who of our politicians, business leaders, the great and the good, or celebrities famous for being famous is kind? Who would we choose for a New Year’s Honour if the criterion were to have been kind? Why isn’t there a Nobel Prize for kindness? The wonderful travel writer and human being Jan Morris in conversation with John Walsh from The Independent said,

Kindness is the ultimate path, the one thing that can stand up against all the shit, the ghastliness. It’s the ultimate human quality. I’ve often thought of starting a political party of Kindness, which would estimate the proportion of kindness there is in any policy. It would be the criterion for a whole system of government.

I really like that! So here’s the challenge: let’s look at the powerful this year and tweet any demonstrations of their kindness we notice. In fact, why just the powerful? Let’s all build a year of kindness. What kindnesses did you meet this Christmas and New Year? Today? It’s a way of perceiving that we all need urgently in these times, and I don’t think we’ve appreciated its full power yet.

PS – Kindness offers a bonus too. In a talk I attended last autumn, David Hamilton (author and former developer of drugs for cardiovascular disease and cancer for the pharmaceutical industry) explained  that research at Oregon State University has proved that kindness – whether we act kindly or unbelievably merely witness a kind act – activates our parasympathetic nervous system and causes our body to produce oxytocin that calms the heart, slows ageing and makes us happier. Oh, and it’s contagious. So kindness is good for us too!

Happy New Year!

Judy

 

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