We Must Sail and Not Drift, Nor Lie at Anchor

“The great thing in this world is not so much where we stand, as in what direction we are moving.” 
                                                                                          Oliver Wendell Holmes
                                                                                           Physician, professor, poet


This weekend, I’ll encourage my children to make resolutions for the new year.

For nearly 10 years, I’ve given each of them a three-inch strip of paper and asked them to list three actions they wanted to improve upon. During their elementary and early middle-school years, they thought the process was fun and a necessary addition to our New Year Eve’s celebration. Their resolutions focused on “be nice,” “play fair,” and “don’t fight as much.” 
When I added more specific guidelines to the slips of paper — “This year, I will…”, “One thing I want to get better at is …,” and “One new thing I want to learn is …” —  my husband and I got to know a little more about each individual’s interests and the person he/she wanted to become. One wanted to learn how to play tennis, another wanted to make it to the state piano contest, and the third wanted to be a better writer. My children heard me say that I wanted to learn how to knit and that my husband wanted to train for, and participate in, the ride-across-Iowa bicycling event. We’ve never used the SMART acronym (Specific, Measurable, Realistic, Time-bound) in writing our resolutions, but the three guidelines helped us create more specific goals. And those goals introduced us to new skills and opportunities for spending time together.
Then the children became teenagers and, remembering previous years’ resolutions that had not been met (most often, mine), began to take the process a little less seriously. They penciled in answers simply to appease me and, more often than not, their comments slid from serious to silly in less than three minutes.
But I persevered. I wanted to believe that those slips of paper would help them think beyond the day-to-day routines to the future months and years. That the words would give life to dreams and convert dreams into actions. Sometimes they did, but too often, the resolutions simply added activities to our schedules, coercing us into competitions we didn’t want and leading us to think that busy-ness was a marker of success.
Then, two years ago, I added a fourth prompt to the strips of paper — “Last year, I’m proud I …” — and I’m glad I did. As we reflected on the past year’s activities, this phrase helped us celebrate the triumphs and recognize what was gained from the challenges. Instead of counting medals, we focused on improvement. Instead of criticism for missed deadlines or failed efforts, we focused on the process, the path, and the journey to becoming a better person. 
Similar, I think, to Oliver Wendell Holmes’ comment, which in its entirety reads:

“I find the great thing in this world is not so much where we stand, as in what direction we are moving: To reach the port of heaven, we must sail sometimes with the wind and sometimes against it, but we must sail, and not drift, nor lie at anchor.”

This weekend, I’ll encourage my children to make resolutions — but  we’ll concentrate on sailing.


About Oliver Wendell Holmes
As a physician, Oliver Wendell Holmes is known for his position that the cause of puerperual fever was poor hygiene by the doctors and nurses. (Puerperual fever, or childbed fever,  is an infection that can occur after a woman gives birth and which, in the 17thto mid-19th centuries, was tied to the high death rate of mothers.) His suggestions, in 1843, that infections would be prevented if a doctor wore clean clothing and washed his hands were ridiculed by his peers. After 10 years of practicing medicine, he spent the rest of his career as a professor at Harvard Medical School.

As a poet, he is best known for a poem he wrote when he was 21 years old. He wrote Old Ironsides as a protest about the destruction of the USS Constitution, the celebrated warship from the War of 1812. It was first published in the Boston Daily Advertiser and reprinted throughout the country. His poem sparked a public outcry demanding the ship be saved; it is now a national memorial at Charlestown Navy Yard in Boston.

He’s also known for writing a series of essays that resembled conversations that could have occurred around the dining table between those who lived in a boardinghouse. The comments, above, were first published in 1831 in the New England Magazine (The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table, Chapter IV).  Twenty-five years later, he recreated the breakfast table series of essays for The Atlantic Monthly

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