From the Spokesman-Review January 16, 2017
For some time now my closest friends and I have forgone New Year’s resolutions and have instead devised titles to announce the theme of the next 12 months.
The most successful of mine has been The Year of Moisturizing. Having long labored under the assumption that putting lotion on my face would give me zits, I resolved, when I hit my mid-40s, to try to stave off wrinkles and use moisturizer. It’s been a whopping success and continues to this day (the moisturizing, not the staving). I decided to focus on making money in The Year of the Dollar. Unfortunately, while working on my second book, the top line of my taxes did not exceed four figures. In The Year of Losing Electrons I attempted to suppress my reflexive negative responses and be more positive! Didn’t stick. However, during the Year of the Novel I tried a bunch of new things – including writing a novel. The following year, when the book was published, I basked in The Year of Gratitude.
For 2017, I’ve decided to channel my favorite founder: the funniest signer of the Declaration of Independence, the inventor of bifocal glasses, the flexible urinary catheter, a space heater and swim fins (swim fins!); the creator of America’s first subscription library and public hospital; an explainer of electricity; a defender of turkeys and an opponent of slavery; the dude who mapped the current of the Gulf Stream and who wrote a letter to a horny young man on why cougars make better mistresses; a postmaster, printer, politician, philanthropist and journalist. Yes, I’m going to try to emulate the earthy and divine Ben Franklin.
In his autobiography, Franklin describes how he crafted a self-improvement plan and listed the virtues he wanted to inculcate:
Temperance. Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.
Silence. Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.
Order. Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.
Resolution. Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.
Frugality. Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.
Industry. Lose no time; be always employed in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.
Sincerity. Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
Justice. Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.
Moderation. Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
Cleanliness. Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, clothes or habitation.
Tranquility. Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.
Chastity. Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.
I’m down with all of these, though I must admit the last one gives me pause. Therefore, I will resolve to use venery only for health.
But Benny Boo Boo didn’t end there:
“My list of virtues continued at first but twelve; but a Quaker friend having kindly informed me that I was generally thought proud, that my pride showed itself frequently in conversation, that I was not content with being in the right when discussing any point, but was overbearing and rather insolent, of which he convinced me by mentioning several instances, I determined endeavoring to cure myself, if I could, of this vice or folly among the rest, and I added Humility to my list, giving an extensive meaning to the word.
“I cannot boast of much success in acquiring the reality of this virtue, but I had a good deal with regard to the appearance of it. I made it a rule to forbear all direct contradiction to the sentiments of others, and all positive assertion of my own. I even forbid myself, agreeably to the old laws of our Junto, the use of every word or expression in the language that imported a fixed opinion, such as certainly, undoubtedly, etc., and I adopted, instead of them, I conceive, I apprehend, or I imagine a thing to be so or so, or it so appearsto me at present. When another asserted something that I thought an error, I denied myself the pleasure of contradicting him abruptly and of showing immediately some absurdity in his proposition; and in answering, I began by observing that in certain cases or circumstances his opinion would be right, but in the present case there appeared or seemed to me some difference, etc. I soon found the advantage of this charge in my manner; the conversations I engaged in went on more pleasantly.
“The modest way in which I proposed my opinions procured them a readier reception and less contradiction; I had less mortification when I was found to be in the wrong, and I more easily prevailed with others to give up their mistakes and join with me when I happened to be in the right.
“And this mode, which I at first put on with some violence to natural inclination, became at length so easy, and so habitual to me, that perhaps for these fifty years past no one has ever heard a dogmatical expression escape me. And to this habit (after my character of integrity) I think it principally owing that I had early so much weight with my fellow-citizens when I proposed new institutions, or alterations in the old, and so much influence in public councils when I became a member; for I was but a bad speaker, never eloquent, subject to much hesitation in my choice of words, hardly correct in language, and yet I generally carried my points.
“In reality, there is, perhaps, no one of our natural passions so hard to subdue as pride.Disguise it, struggle with it, beat it down, stifle it, mortify it as much as one pleases, it is still alive, and will every now and then peep out and show itself; you will see it, perhaps, often in this history; for, even if I could conceive that I had completely overcome it, I should probably be proud of my humility.”
That Uncle Ben.
I find that as I mature I have become allergic to certainty in others and have been trying to check it in myself. I will try to renounce the joy of pouncing on those who don’t agree with me and find common ground before gently pointing out what I perceive to be their errors.
For me, 2017 will be The Year of Being Ben-ish.
Rachel Toor is a professor of creative writing at Eastern Washington University. She is the author of one novel and four books of nonfiction, the most recent of which is “Misunderstood: Why the Humble Rat May Be Your Best Pet Ever.” Her column, Everything is Copy, appears monthly in the Monday Today section.