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Spiritual director offers best New Year resolution ever

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By Marilyn Kerber, SNDdeN

The recent archdiocesan Jubilee celebration gave me pause. Looming large for me was the seeming low attendance, to my way of thinking, as well as those who did not RSVP, even after a telephone call. And then there were the four who did not show. These thoughts and feelings stay with me despite the fact that Archbishop Schnurr told me numbers do not matter for him, he celebrates with those who come. These thoughts and feelings linger even after much appreciation was expressed for the celebration. It was a lovely celebration of years of commitment: 25, 50, 70, 75 and 85 of those present, and those not able to be with us.

Why do negatives loom large and stay with me despite information to the contrary? Psychology tells us the answer is that the negative just makes a bigger impact on our brains. And that is due to our brain’s “negativity bias.” Our brain is simply built with a greater sensitivity to the unpleasant news. The bias is so automatic that it can be detected at the earliest stage of the brain’s information processing.

Our capacity to weigh negative input so heavily most likely evolved for a good reason—to keep us out of harm’s way. From the dawn of human history, our very survival depended on our skill at dodging danger. The brain developed systems that would make it unavoidable for us not to notice danger and thus, hopefully, respond to it. Having the built-in brain apparatus supersensitive to negativity means that the same bad-news bias also is at work in every sphere of our lives at all times.

Scripture instructs us to “Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you (1 Thessalonians 5: 18).” It seems that our very own “hard-wiring” works against this call to us as believers.

Years ago now, I read about an idea that I really liked: each day for a year write down three things for which you are grateful, creating a Gratitude Journal. I like making lists and so this spiritual practice came easy. And what did I learn? In 365 days of writing down three things I was grateful to God for, there was hardly a duplicate! And I noticed that there was so very much to be grateful for in my life.

More recently, I have taken to falling asleep each night recalling all that I am grateful to God for in the day that is ending. What I have noticed is that I often do not need to wait to the end of the day to notice something I am grateful for, e.g., a beautiful sky, an unexpected kindness, an endeavor that went exceptionally well, and I am a happier person. Have I let go of noticing the negative things that happen in every instance? Hardly, as my opening reflection so clearly indicates. Focusing on the positive rather than the negative does not come easily. It takes resolve and practice to accomplish, as does any good habit, spiritual or otherwise.

In my religious community there is a tradition of spending the last three days of the year on repentance (Dec. 29); gratitude (Dec. 30); and resolution (Dec. 31). I take Dec. 31 to heart. I make New Year’s resolutions every year, limiting them to two or three. Today I cannot tell you one of them. I probably forgot them by February!

In the times in which we live there is negativity and challenging events; maybe it’s always been so. Add to this our “hardwiring” to noticing the negative. Perhaps the best of all New Year’s resolutions for 2019 would be to try to become the grateful people God invites us to be. This resolution could take shape in a way best suited for you. Create a Gratitude Journal. Fall asleep each night thanking God for the gifts of the day coming to a close. Or post “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever” (Psalm 136:1), somewhere you will see it often. Or best of all, perhaps we could just notice and ponder more all the good people and happenings God places in our lives.

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