Resolving to Focus in 2014

Despite the distractions of the coming year, it’s important to hold basic, long-lasting truths in mind in order to experience purpose and joy.

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Pope Francis speaks at a New Year's Eve vespers service in St. Peter's Basilica on December 31, 2013. (AP/Alessandra Tarantino)
Pope Francis speaks at a New Year's Eve vespers service in St. Peter's Basilica on December 31, 2013. (AP/Alessandra Tarantino)

Whether or not we make New Year’s resolutions, there is something about beginning a new calendar year that seems to encourage a fresh start—or at least a renewed effort—to narrow the gap between who we are and who we seek to be.

For me, this effort includes the desire to remember some basic truths that are essential for a meaningful life. These truths are too often trampled in the clamor of daily living, with its many tasks and obligations, and a noisy world that worships glitter and shine.

So while 2014 is still fresh, consider these three truths, which I hope to keep in mind despite the distractions and commotion of the coming year. They struck me anew as I was reading Pope Francis’s recent encyclical, Evangelii Gaudium. His words are not only spiritually astute and psychologically wise; they are also politically timely.

Envy and greed corrode the heart

In today’s consumer culture, a proliferation of social media and relentless advertising flaunt impossibly perfect lives filled with myriad possessions that make our own lives feel inadequate and small. When we compare our flawed inner selves with the polished exteriors of others, we come up short. Envy and resentment fill our hearts as we ceaselessly hunger to have what we think we lack. As Pope Francis says:

The great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience. Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. … Many … end up resentful, angry and listless. That is no way to live a dignified and fulfilled life.

The good news is that people are organizing against this unhealthy way of being and helping to create new social norms. The Center for a New American Dream, for example, has a range of educational and advocacy programs that push back against mindless consumerism and work to make life more sustainable and satisfying.

Extreme, inflexible economic inequality is wrong

Like all human-created systems, a free-market economy is not inherently virtuous. Indeed, it is flawed, requiring rules and regulations to help safeguard the welfare of the people it is supposed to serve. But while today’s economy is a highly complex entity, its complexity does not erase moral truth. To those who support trickle-down theories of economics, Pope Francis says:

This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. … To sustain a lifestyle which excludes others, or to sustain enthusiasm for that selfish ideal, a globalization of indifference has developed. Almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own.

Fortunately, the pope is not alone in his moral awareness. Increasingly, a critical mass of the public and the media are questioning a system that permits working people to live in poverty and tilts economic rewards to the top 1 percent of the population.

Detachment and simplicity bring joy

Accompanying the desire for material goods is the drive to compete and win. Too often, we measure our worth according to an arbitrary ladder of success, counting which rung we are on compared to others. We lose sight of our deepest hopes as we become enmeshed in day-to-day battles that take on exaggerated importance and sap the creativity and energy that we need to work for a more just and sustainable world. As Pope Francis says:

Sometimes we are tempted to find excuses and complain, acting as if we could only be happy if a thousand conditions were met. To some extent this is because our “technological society has succeeded in multiplying occasions of pleasure, yet has found it very difficult to engender joy”. I can say that the most beautiful and natural expressions of joy which I have seen in my life were in poor people who had little to hold on to. I also think of the real joy shown by others who, even amid pressing professional obligations, were able to preserve, in detachment and simplicity, a heart full of faith.

Again, the pope is not the only one aware of this universal truth. The Dalai Lama said, “If one’s life is simple, contentment has to come.” What’s more, the increasing popularity of yoga and meditation reflect many people’s deep desire to clear their cluttered minds and focus on the things that are essential for happiness and joy.

We need these age-old truths now more than ever. Finding purpose beyond ourselves in serving others—and striving for justice and the common good—are sure ways to find renewal in the coming year as we work to create a better world.

Sally Steenland is Director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. Steenland, a best-selling author, former newspaper columnist, and teacher, explores the role of religion and values in the public sphere.

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Sally Steenland

Former Director, Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative

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