Friday, December 16, 2011

Resolutions forgiven and forgotten

"Forgive yourself." There's usually a story behind morning-after advice like that, but it was a mystery to me. I woke for my morning run, poked my head out the door and there it was, graffiti on my parkway planter.

"Forgive yourself." One thing's clear: At least one tagger forgives himself for vandalism. These words have been appearing on Chicago buildings and sidewalks for at least a year.

From its placement, this tag seemed aimed at people leaving the tavern next door. I could have told the tagger that the bar's clientele needed no prompting to forgive themselves for overindulgence. I would have just pointed out the vomit behind the fence. It isn't obvious when frozen.

But I wasn't asked. The tagger thinks it's better to ask forgiveness than to beg permission. So this editor started work early, not with a blue pencil but with a can of Goof-Off Graffiti Remover. Every Chicago home should have a supply.

The graffiti soon was gone, but the advice left traces all the way to the office. "Forgive yourself." I must have been the last person in Chicago to get that memo. The woman next to me on the L swatted me with her backpack, then stood back while I tried to unravel her umbrella snagged on my coat. I missed my stop. She forgave herself.

"Forgive yourself." Still, the tagger is on to something. Every year about this time I'm making resolutions not to be so selfish, so self-destructive, so imperfect. Why don't I just forgive myself? It's not as if the New Year's list is going to last till Three Kings Day.

We all can forgive ourselves for making resolutions that don't stick. We all want to make big changes, but can marshal only modest resources. In business we learn that time, resources and scope will limit any project. If we give ourselves a week to make changes, and the budget of, say, a health-club membership, we're only committing to changes around the margins. Hardly enough for changes around the waistline.

So I'm making realistic changes this year. Like that resolution to try not to win every argument. My partner and I are too competitive. We both want to win, so we take a 90 second change and hash over it all night. Getting in one final dig and charging out the door gets me nowhere. I might forgive myself, but eventually I have to come back home and beg.

Here's how I plan to proceed, and you may want to consider this strategy yourself: Forgive others. Don't insist on the last word. Concede a small point and see where it leads you.

There are plenty of reasons to blame yourself for putting on the extra pounds. Forgive your partner his taste for burgers and fries, and you start to address why you can't make a diet stick. Soon you will find an approach you can both live with.

Forgive your alderman and your congressman for trying to deliver more than your taxes will pay for. They'll stop promising the moon for once. It could spark a revolution in politics.

Will this approach help you save the world? No, but it give your personal plan a scope that's both broader and more realistic. You cannot change what you cannot see. Giving others some slack helps you think about their limitations, about how they compare to your own, and how you can move both in a better direction.

It's an approach that works for me. If you find it unrealistic, forgive me.