A good friend of mine has a tradition where every New Year’s Eve he comes up with a word that defines the coming year. The idea is that whatever word he chooses will become an aspirational theme that guides his life over the next 12 months. When I first heard of this tradition, I kind of laughed at the audacity of a person defining their whole year by one word, but the more he explained the concept, the more I fell in love with the idea.
For example, the first year he told me about this tradition, his word for the year was discovery. The goal of that particular year was to have adventures of discovery, whether it be self-discovery, discovery of new knowledge or discovery of new people and places. Lo and behold, the following December when I asked my friend whether his word panned out, he detailed story after story of how that year was riddled with numerous adventures of discovery.
This is not unusual for him. Every word he has chosen somehow weaves itself into his life narrative. It’s as if speaking the word on New Year’s Day creates a chain reaction. The universe conspires to bring that word to life on his behalf. I met my friend nearly 10 years ago and this is the first New Year's Day I have been inspired to choose a word that will define my year. The word I have chosen for 2023 is freedom.
Life as Music
I was inspired to choose freedom because of listening to a lecture by Alan Watts. An Episcopalian priest who travelled into Asia to learn about Eastern religions, Watts is best known for popularizing Buddhist, Taoist, and Hindu philosophy for Western audiences in the 1950s and 60s. Below is a short film I compiled based on the words of one of his lectures. I have placed the words underneath the video.
Existence, the physical universe, is best understood by analogy with music. In music, one doesn’t make the end of the composition, the point of the composition. If that were so, the best conductors would be those who played fastest and there would be composers who wrote only finales. People would go to concerts just to hear one crashing chord; because that’s the end! Same way in dancing. You don’t aim at a particular spot in the room; that’s where you should arrive. The whole point of the dancing is the dance.
Now but we don’t see that as something brought by our education into our everyday conduct. We’ve got a system of schooling which gives a completely different impression. It’s all graded. And what we do is put the child into the corridor of this grade system with a kind of “come on kitty, kitty, kitty.” And now you go to kindergarten. And that’s a great thing because when you finish that you’ll get into first grade.
And then come on, first grade leads to second grade and so on, and then you get out of grade school; and you go to high school. And it’s revving up—the thing is coming. Then you’ve got to go to college, and, by Jove, then you get into graduate school and when you’re through with graduate school you go out to join the world!
And then you get into some racket where you’re selling insurance. And they’ve got that quota to make, and you’re gonna make that. And all the time, the thing is coming. It’s coming, it’s coming! That great thing, the success you’re working for. Then you wake up one day at about 40 years old, you say, “My God, I’ve arrived! I’m there!” And you don’t feel very different from what you’ve always felt. And there’s a slight let down because you feel there’s a hoax. And there was a hoax. A dreadful hoax. They made you miss everything by expectation.
Look at the people who live to retire and put those savings away. And then when they’re 65, they don’t have any energy left. They’re more or less impotent and they go and rot in an old people’s senior citizens community. Because we simply cheated ourselves the whole way down the line. We thought of life with analogy by journey, with a pilgrimage, which had a serious purpose at the end and the thing was to get to that end. Success or whatever it is, or maybe heaven after you’re dead.
But we missed the point the whole way along. It was a musical thing and you were supposed to sing or to dance while the music was being played. But you had to do that thing. You didn’t let it happen.
In his lecture, Watts discusses the concept of how we, in the Western world, have been taught to think of life as a journey. Indeed, Watts believes this notion is a very destructive idea. His reasoning is surprisingly simple: A journey is always moving from point A to point B to point C, until you reach a conclusion. There is an inherent belief that the conclusion of the journey is the ultimate goal of why you undertook the journey in the first place. Indeed, the conclusion of the journey is supposedly what makes the journey worth the investment of your time.
Consider your favorite films. They operate in this fashion. The best films feel like a journey. They have an amazing beginning that keeps you invested in the narrative as various plot points build the character development, until eventually the film reaches a pinnacle. Almost always, the best films have remarkable endings that make you feel the entire investment in the film’s journey was worthwhile. Below is the trailer of one of my favorite films, The Shawshank Redemption, that fully encapsulates this concept.
In the Western world, the film journey is how we like to envision our own lives. Everyone wants their life’s journey to follow an arc that builds to a satisfying conclusion. Although there are lots of different journeys we can travel as humans, the most universal journey is that of having to work to support ourselves. The journey of our careers is often defined by starting at the bottom of the food chain and, over years, climbing higher up in an organization(s), which results in more responsibility and higher compensation.
As Alan Watts states in his lecture, we all have aspirations to develop a career. Perhaps you’re selling a product like insurance or you’re teaching children in school or you’re working at a bank managing money or running a church as a pastor. Whatever your profession, over time you will eventually ascend the ladder to the top. Upon arriving at the apex of your vocation, you think to yourself, “Well, I’ve made it. I did what they told me to do. I’ve reached the pinnacle of the life that was laid out before me.”
However, if you’ve ever reached the top of your profession, you understand that there is not some seismic shift. You don’t necessarily feel like anything has significantly changed. Sure, you’ve accomplished an important goal you set out to achieve. And by achieving that goal, you do feel different in the sense that you now have a lot more responsibility associated with your level of compensation, but it’s not as life altering as you anticipated. It’s not like the world suddenly makes sense in a completely new way.
When I was 33 and I became the head pastor of a 1100 member church. In the early days of my tenure, we averaged between 550 and 600 people per Sunday. Most pastors in my denomination will never get to pastor a church of this size and, if they do, it generally comes in their late 40s or early 50s.
Therefore, when I was offered the job, I thought, “This is it!” I had leapfrogged past a lot of steps to arrive at the top of my profession. I had this quixotic notion that my life would feel complete…but it didn’t. As I settled into the job, I figured the feeling would eventually come as I achieved more goals. Nope. Goal after goal, I felt exactly the same, just more exhausted from exerting so much effort.
I couldn’t figure out what I was doing wrong, until I listened to this lecture by Alan Watts. When you look at your life like a story unfolding before your eyes, you become convinced that achievement is what will bring you fulfillment. If I can just get to the end of the story, then everything will come together and you will feel complete. Unfortunately, this is a lie. What Alan Watts is trying to tell us is that life isn’t so much a story as it is a dance.
When you dance to music (and I’m not talking about choreographed dance, I’m talking about just moving your body with the rhythm) the point is simply to enjoy the music. You’re not thinking about anything else except being in the present moment, allowing the music to flow through you so that it's a part of you. That’s what life is really all about—enjoying every little moment along the way.
But it’s hard to enjoy the moment when you’re always moving from one goal to the next. I used to think to myself, “Everything will be better when I just finish X,” whatever X might be. I would buckle down and do these projects, sacrificing my time with my family and friends. Ironically, even when I was with my family and friends, I couldn’t really enjoy my time with them because the goal was always hovering in the back of my mind. I was always contemplating the next steps that would allow me to accomplish my current project or goal.
One day, I woke up and I realized I was completely missing out on the joy of life. I looked back over my life and realized that I was so focused on achieving goals that I was missing out on everything that truly matters. As a result, I started rearranging my priorities. I setup really specific boundaries. I will still work on my projects (like Restorative Faith) during very specific times that I set aside for them. However, when I reach that time limit, I step away and stop thinking about them so I can be present with the people who matter most to me.
What I have discovered is that the more time I spend enjoying the dance of life, the more I realize how little those goals mean in the grand scheme of things. Now enjoying the dance of life is my top priority, which is where the word for this year comes into play—freedom. Rather than define my life by a journey where I’m ticking away at goals trying to reach a particular end, I want to live this year in the moment. I want to enjoy the dance of life.
As someone whose mind is always churning out new ideas, the need to continually be productive is enmeshed in every fiber of my being. This year, I want to live free from the constraints of always feeling the compulsion to create. Instead, I want to spend my time with people and simply enjoy being in their presence. I want to live my life free of the clock always ticking in my ear. I want to spend my time doing nothing. Absolutely nothing.
Not nothing by watching Netflix; not nothing by listening to music or a podcast; not nothing by reading a book or a magazine; not nothing by cleaning my house or washing my car or doing the laundry. Nothing, as in breathing and staring out at the world. In fact, I have found that when I force myself to sit in silence without any distractions, eventually all the static noise in my mind fades to silence. And once that static is gone, I feel…alive. I have come to understand that true freedom is the ability to sit and simply be.
I’m not saying that freedom needs to be your word for the year, but what I am saying is that you should examine the shackles you are wearing that keep you tethered in place. Much good has come out of me learning how to experience the dance of life. As a result, I want to make this year about the freedom of being in the moment. Indeed, I hope the same will be true for you. I hope you will find your way to dance; your way to be in the moment.
Now that you’ve read about my word for the year, I would be interested to know: What is your word for this year and why did you choose it? If you’re willing, please share in the comments below. Happy New Year!