The following post originally appeared on the Prison Fellowship International website on January 3, 2011.
Several of my neighbors began the new year suffering from the ill effects of their year-end revelry. What must have seemed like a lot of fun as the old year drew to a close, morphed into nauseous aching pain as the new year dawned. A night of celebration became the morning of commiseration.
A hangover is surely not the best note on which to begin a new year. Of course there is nothing ultimately significant about a new year, for it only marks the completion of one full cycle of seasons and the beginning of the next. Yet for many of us the dawning of a new year becomes an opportunity for making a fresh start, the occasion for opening a new chapter in our lives by dumping the shortcomings and undesirable baggage of the past year and setting the stage with new goals, resolutions, and directions.
For many prisoners the coming of a new year is anticipated as the occasion for possible Presidential Clemency or pardon – the opportunity to resume life as a free person with a clean slate. Ironically, the governor of New Mexico (USA) refused to pardon one of America’s most celebrated outlaws, a folk hero – Billy the Kid, who was shot dead by a sheriff more than a hundred years ago. Unfortunately, the new year brought neither freedom nor a fresh start to Billy, and the baggage of his criminal past remains interred with him in the graveyard of history.1
Meanwhile, in the Republic of Georgia 339 prisoners were pardoned by President Saakashvili and released from prison to join their families and friends in time to celebrate the new year.2 Yet in the Philippines, President “Noynoy” Aquino demanded additional justification as to why he should actually pardon 200 prisoners who had been recommended for pardon by criminal justice officials.3 Despite their highest hopes, those prisoners began this new year in the same place that the old year ended – the same isolation, overcrowding, idleness, and sense of helplessness.
The possibility of making a fresh start in our lives appeals to all of us who long to rid ourselves of old baggage and begin our lives anew. Every year I pause at the threshold of the new year to review the events and experiences of my life during the past year and to set new and better goals for the coming year. But every year that I go through this exercise I become painfully aware that simply turning over a new leaf doesn’t cure me of my tendencies to procrastinate, to be distracted by competing demands, and to be seduced by superfluities. This is the “hangover” with which I enter the new year from the old.
In a sense, I am no different from my partying neighbors. Their new year began exactly where the old year ended. Like so many pardoned prisoners who experience the dramatic opportunity for a fresh start, it doesn’t take long for any of us to be affected by the “demons” of our past inclinations, problems, and failures.
A dictum I learned during my work with disadvantaged urban youth is, that while it is possible to take a person out of the “ghetto” it is virtually impossible to take the “ghetto” out of the person. The reality of this new year is that while we may resolve it to be a year that is different spiritually, socially, professionally, or in any other respect – we enter this year with a hangover. What we need is not a different set of goals or a fresh start, more discipline in our resolve, or even a new leaf to turn over – we need an inner change, to be born anew.
Please pardon my hangover while I seek God’s help to do what I cannot do for myself by seizing the opportunity of a new year, thinking more positively, or resolving more resolutely.
The object of a New Year is not that we should have a new year.
It is that we should have a new soul and a new nose;
new feet, a new backbone, new ears, and new eyes.
Unless a particular man made New Year resolutions, he would make no resolutions. Unless a man starts afresh about things, he will certainly do nothing effective.
Unless a man starts on the strange assumption that he has never existed before,
it is quite certain that he will never exist afterwards.
Unless a man be born again, he shall by no means enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.
Ron W. Nikkel is the president and CEO of Prison Fellowship International (PFI). For more information, visit the PFI website.