Thursday, January 02, 2014

2014: Looking back and looking forward

Happy New Year!
Gears from the 10,000 year clock, being built in
the caves of Western Texas.
Student assembly address:

The end of the year is always interesting--people are fond of making “best of” lists. ESPN’s top play of the year in 2013, for example, was Chris Davis’ 108 yard touchdown return off a missed field goal with one second left on the clock, elevating Auburn to beat Alabama in this year’s “IRON” bowl. Time Magazine recently picked Pope Francis as their “Man of the Year” and CNN says that Pope Francis was their top newsmaker. Madonna is the most highly paid “celebrity” in 2013 at 125 million dollars, so says Forbes Magazine, beating out Steven Spielberg at #2, who made a mere 100 million dollars. Tiger Woods was the most highly paid athlete, edging Roger Federer. The best selling motor vehicle was a Ford 150; the best selling car, strictly speaking, was a Toyota Camry.

Oxford Dictionary on line picks a “word” of the year every year. The 2012 word of the year was “Hashtag.” The 2013 word is “selfie,” defined as a picture of yourself or yourself with friends, usually taken with a smart phone, that you post on social media sites. 

If the language we use is a window into the way we think, then the “word of the year” is probably a window into the way our culture thinks. SELFIE. I once heard a comedian discuss the evolution of popular magazines. He said that LIFE Magazine came into existence in 1883. “Life”—that’s a broad, inclusive term. PEOPLE Magazine began in 1974. “People”—still pretty broad, but doesn’t include all life. US Weekly began a few years later—narrowing the focus further: US-- but not them. Shortly after that, SELF magazine came into being. The comedian predicted that soon there will be a magazine that takes it right to the core: ME magazine!

There really is a narcissistic quality to our culture, a kind of infatuation with our selves, isn’t there? You can even see that is in our New Year’s resolutions. New gym memberships are swelling as people have resolved to get into shape. We’re being deluged with commercials about diet plans, as people have resolved to lose weight. Others are vowing to quit smoking, to drink less, to manage stress better, to manage money better, to take a trip. These are all good, but they have something in common—they aim toward self-betterment, rather than making things better for others. Of the thirteen most popular new year’s resolutions, according to, only two are altruistic—volunteer more, and recycle more.

I’m not suggesting that trying to improve our selves is a bad thing—it requires real maturity and self-discipline to be able to look at our selves critically and muster up the resolve to improve those areas of our lives that need improving. We should all do this.

But I am suggesting that we do something beyond that too. How can my life make other people’s lives better this year? How can I make people happier? How can I be a better member of my family? How can I be a better son, or daughter, or friend? What difference does my life make to others? How does my faith play out in terms of service to others? You may have heard the old adage: If I were arrested for being Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict me? What is that evidence in terms of the way I treat others?

I heard about an interesting project over Christmas. A group called the “Long Now” is building they're calling is a “Ten Thousand Year Clock,” and they’ve secured millions of dollars of contributions from people such as Jeff Bezos, founder of, to help them build it. Their idea is to build a clock in a desert mountain in Western Texas that will last 10,000 years-- requiring very little maintenance, that will survive a human catastrophe, if we blew each other up in nuclear war, for example, or even if humanity ceased to exist altogether. It will chime a special melody at the beginning of every new century, with the first chimes to go off on January 1, 2100, well beyond the lives of all those involved in building the clock. (For more information on this project, go here. )

Why in the world are they doing this?

As their organization’s name “The Long Now” implies, they want people to begin thinking beyond the here and now. We’re all victims to what I heard someone once refer to as “present-itis,” being locked into the now, without the ability to really think about the future. The ten thousand year number reflects about the same number of years that humanity has existed, and these guys want us to think about and care for our planet for the next ten thousand years, whether we’re talking about climate change, or nuclear proliferation, or food supply, or clean water, or whatever. They hope this clock will serve as a monument to the fact we have a duty to care about each other and to care for future generations. They want us to begin thinking more along the lines of the Greek proverb that says simply, “A society becomes great when its old men plant trees whose shade they know they will never sit in.” They want us to ask, "Are we being good ancestors?"

As we begin this new semester here at JPII, as we begin this new year together in 2014, may we live in such a way as to reflect a real concern for each other—to not just make ourselves better, but our schools, our families, our communities, our country and our planet.

“Faith leads us beyond ourselves,” is a saying we’ve been using a lot around here. The best life is one lived for others. May we resolve to live this way in 2014.  

Happy New Year, everyone!

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