How to Pay it Forward
Praying for Strangers. River Jordan. Penguin. 336 pp. $24.95
Right around this time of the year many of us are once again finding that slip of paper on the dresser on which we’ve scrolled out “Resolutions 2011” followed by three or four bullet points: Lose weight; Get finances in order; Drink less caffeine. By this point we’ve completely forgotten that we even made them. Praying for Strangers isn’t the story of a woman who, after years of success with her own resolutions, decided to focus her attention elsewhere. In fact, quite the opposite. Jordan makes it very clear that she hasn’t actually followed through on a resolution until now.
I think the reason that these resolutions drop away regardless of my great intentions is because, ultimately, things don’t really have much to do with my real world, my day-to-day living. I’m not lunching with Italian spies followed by an invigorating game of chess as we discuss the possibilities of the reality of this thing called string theory. I need life to meet me at the crossroads of my daily existence, something that shouts back at me from the mirror in the morning. So resolutions, all these beautiful life-growing challenges, turn to dust.
But something about this year struck her. Maybe it was the fact that her life was changing drastically in such a short amount of time. Both of her sons deploying weeks apart is hard on a mother. Maybe it was the looming deadlines or the knowledge that she hadn’t followed through on a personal resolution thus far. Regardless, something about this particular year caused Jordan to take a step back from herself and decide, “This year is not going to be about me.”
What’s arguably the most interesting about this book is the Resolution itself. I haven’t yet heard of a resolution that wasn’t primarily focused on personal betterment. And we can play around and say, “My drinking less coffee will benefit the overworked/underpaid coffee farmers in Columbia.” It’s a nice through, but let’s get real. You’re drinking less coffee for you. And there isn’t anything wrong with that. But let’s keep in mind the purpose of the Resolution itself.
Normally I approach the end of the year with a new one on my mind. By Thanksgiving I am often already considering my New Year’s Resolutions. Every year I see them as a way to complete myself, to make up for all those things I haven’t accomplished in a lifetime but can now master in a year.
As I mentioned earlier, Jordan’s resolution is the first I’d heard where the focus was not on herself. And yet, by focusing on one stranger each day to pray for, and often telling that stranger of her plans, she was able to find a sense of peace that she would have never found by running three miles each day or having a cup of green tea each afternoon.
It’s easier to pray for a stranger when we possess that place where we can walk on the waters that trouble us most, the tides of our emotions rising and rolling inside.
What would happen if each of us followed a similar path? Jordan made a New Year’s Resolution out of it, but a personal goal doesn’t necessarily need to fall on the first of the year. What if, for the next month, we can pray for one different stranger each day? In a perfect world, where everyone followed this plan, I truly believe we would achieve world peace. It was, after all, Mother Teresa who once said, “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.”