Dear Joseph,
Most New Year's resolutions seem to revolve around health issues like losing weight, exercising, and giving up smoking. Do you have any ethical New Year's resolutions?
-Looking for Improvement

Dear Looking,
First, I want to note that starting the New Year with ethical resolutions is a wonderful idea. Two hundred years ago, the Hasidic Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav offered this challenge to his followers: "If you are not going to be better tomorrow than you were today, then what need do you have for tomorrow?" Rabbi Nachman's point is profound. If you don't grow in some way tomorrow or over the following days and weeks, then your soul atrophies. How meaningful can your life be if your goodness is not expanding, if you are no better tomorrow (or next year) than you were today? With that challenge in mind, let me suggest two activities that will improve the quality of your own life and of those around you.

  • Declare periodic "complaining fasts."
    Just as on a fast day you refrain from eating for 24 hours, during a complaining fast you refrain from complaining about anything for a full day. Such fasts should be invoked whenever the level of complaining in your house (or at your office) becomes excessive and demoralizing--which for most families probably happens once every two or three weeks. In our family, what generally triggers such a fast is a scenario such as the following. I come home in a good mood; I had a good day at work. My wife, however, has had a difficult day, and she starts to tell me about it. At first I am very sympathetic, but the longer she talks about how difficult her day has been, the more I start to rethink my day: "You think you had a hard day--you know what happened to me?" Within 10 minutes, we're both convinced that we're leading miserably unhappy lives. And so we declare a complaining fast.

  • Once complaining ceases to be an option, we quickly become more appreciative both of the people around us and of the good things going on in our lives. (Obviously, if something truly bad is going on, we can call attention to it.)

    A man told me that one night, just before he fell asleep, he started to review his interactions with his 10-year-old daughter that evening. He realized that almost every one was negative. He had walked into her room and reprimanded her for the mess; then at dinner he had criticized her table manners. Later, he expressed annoyance that she hadn't yet done her homework; but when she did it, he was upset at the mistakes she made. He felt he was only correcting her because he loved her and wanted her to do better. But then he wondered how he would feel if his boss had criticized him so relentlessly. Would he have believed that the boss really cared about him, or would he have concluded that he was held in contempt--and ended up feeling demoralized?

    Complaining fasts liberate us to notice and comment upon the good things in the people around us. You'll feel better about your life, and I assure you that the people who interact with you will feel better about you and themselves.

  • Say a prayer when you hear an ambulance pass by.
    I used to feel annoyed when an intimate conversation in which I was engaged was shattered by the loud siren of a passing ambulance. Some years ago, when I confided my embarrassment about this reaction to my friend Rabbi Zalman Schachter Shalomi, he gave me the following advice: "Whenever you hear an ambulance, offer a prayer that the ambulance arrives in time. Make a similar prayer when you hear the blaring siren of a fire truck or police car." I started making such prayers, and two things happened. I stopped feeling annoyed because I had something to do. And then, after a few days, I realized that through this prayer I had started practicing "Love your neighbor as yourself"-even toward "neighbors" I had never met. Imagine if this kind of prayer became widely practiced and that one day, God forbid, you were in an ambulance. You would know that wherever the ambulance passed, people were praying for you.

    May I conclude by wishing you a good today and an even better tomorrow.

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