Resolutions and the Road to Character

Joyce Wayne making New Year resolutions, ensuring that her retirement plans assure her of financial and mental health security.

For 2016 my new year’s resolution is to ignore making any. Except for one.

If you’re like me, for the last week you’ve been reading about how to go on a diet, get fit, manage finances, enhance career, pay down debt, invest wisely, be more fashionable and improve memory. The list goes on.  What the list rarely includes is how to be a better person.

It’s an old fashioned concept, becoming a better person and the meaning can be nebulous. Aren’t we all trying to be better?

According to two movies I saw during the holidays, the answer is a definite no.

In Spotlight, the movie about a team of dedicated investigative reporters at the Boston Globe, who uncover the long, heartbreaking history of child abuse by Catholic priests, you’re reminded that the worse crimes often happen right under our noses.

Either through the lobbying of special interests, hypocrisy, or by individuals turning away from gross injustice, bad things happen to innocent human beings.  The investigative team at the newspaper doesn’t give up even when the most influential group in the city of Boston tries to keep the reporters’ findings under wraps. When the paper does publish its story, the church is forced to stop hiding the pedophiliacs among its priests.

The film, The Big Short is just as powerful. Based on Michael Lewis’ book of the same title, the movie exposes how huge American firms “rigged credit ratings to make bad loans seem like good loans, created subprime bonds designed to fail, sold them to their customers and bet against them.”

When the world economy was on the brink of disaster in 2008, The Big Short exposes how top insiders knew what they were doing to endanger just about everyone except themselves. The trouble was most of those who’d caught wind of the subprime bonds play, turned the other way, pretending they didn’t know what was happening.

By 2016, most Canadians, including retirees, contend with more debt than ever before, although our banks did not participate in the subprime fiasco. In Lewis’ newest book Flash Boys, he spends considerable time talking about how “nice” Canadian banks are. Yet as interest rates plummeted to all time lows to try to stop the economic meltdown, central banks’ rate cuts encouraged the average Joe to borrow more and more. Without an increase in wages, personal balance sheets turned red.

Unless we are careful, particularly during retirement, when there isn’t the time to make the money back we lost in the Great Recession or to earn it by working, debt can begin to play havoc with the prudent planning of a lifetime.

Retirees or the soon to be retired need to be careful not to overspend by depending on consumer consumption to make us feel good.  We need to be careful not to believe that moving to another home or another location will solve our problems when our own backyard can fulfill our needs.

Last year a survey by debt rating agency Equifax for HomeEquity Bank showed that the number of mortgages seniors are carrying is rising.

“They just don’t have enough money,” said Yvonne Ziomecki, senior vice-president of marketing and sales of HomeEquity Bank, of the new lifestyle seniors are aspiring to. “We have a new term we have been using, right sizing. They are not downsizing. They don’t really need bigger homes, but they move into a house that has all the upgrades.”

What I’ve learned is that longevity, staying the course, prevails every time and whenever I’ve veered off course, I’ve made a mess of things.  Aging in place, concentrating on family and friends, tending to your finances in a diligent manner and being a good neighbor and a participating citizen through volunteering or charity is the best prescription for a rewarding, settled retirement.

Yet it’s not so easy to accomplish, and that’s where the ideas in The Road to Character, New York Times columnist David Brooks’ bestselling book plays a role. He distinguishes between two opposing sides of our nature.

The first side is the ambitious, career-oriented side interested in high status and winning. The second side is internally focused on moral qualities, which Brooks describes as “a serene inner character, a quiet but solid sense of right and wrong –not only to do good but to be good.”

Brook’s premise is that we live in a culture that exalts the first side and neglects the second. If we only concentrate on the first side we turn into “ shrewd animals, crafty, self-preserving creatures, adept at playing the game and turning everything into a game.” The traders who gave us the 2008 great Recession are those kind of people.

If we concentrate on the second side, which is what Brooks’ book is about, we learn to cultivate a strong character by engaging in traditions which hold each of us accountable for our actions and underscores that we can confront our weaknesses to build character.

According to Brooks we don’t build character by listening to sermons or following abstract rules. Character is built “when the heart is warmed, when we come into contact with people we admire and love and we bend our lives to mimic theirs.”

In my living room this New Year’s Eve, sat a group of people whom I admire. My one resolution for 2016 is to pay close attention to how they navigate the choppy waters of the coming year. Most of my guests are facing difficulties of some sort be it health or financial issues or sorrows of the heart.

They are people who are not thrown off course, they don’t crumble when facing adversity, they speak up when they witness wrong-doing and remain true to the ideals that brought them to a whole and cohesive life.  They are thoughtful people with considerable history who make moral decisions. These decisions guide the course of their days and allow them to sleep at night.

I’m going to try to be more of that kind of person and try to let the other side go. It’s about time.

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