Bart Mills: Resolve to do the right things as a community

December 26, 2012

This being my last column for 2012, I was tempted to do what I’ve done in years past and pass along my advice for setting resolutions one might reasonably expect to keep. The condensed version of that column has always amounted to pretty much the same thing: set the bar low.

By way of example, I have suggested that my own resolutions include staying off crystal meth, avoiding romantic entanglements with anyone named Kardashian and finding honest and lucrative employment. The joke is, of course, that these are things I am reasonably unlikely to do anyway, meaning my resolution is to do little if anything different. That works for me because I’m pretty doggone happy with my life and the manner by which I navigate it. I can’t say it’s a good idea for everyone. Actually, I’m about to say just the opposite.

There are plenty of people out there who could stand to make a resolution or two with the new year. This being a public format and all, it’s probably not appropriate to call them out individually (“Jim Gideon needs to stop wearing bike shorts to the symphony”), but it is perfectly appropriate, if not mandatory, that I call out the larger community on one or two things I think we should resolve to improve upon in 2013. In keeping with tradition, I’ve set the bar relatively low, but there’s enough challenge here to keep everyone interested.

My first resolution for the new year is one that should be the simplest: We need to communicate.

At the risk of sounding like your college speech professor, let me clarify that talking and communicating are not the same thing. We talk plenty, all the time, loudly and angrily and, more often than not, with no idea what we’re saying. Communication is that two-way exchange that involves both speaking with a thorough understanding of the subject and listening with an honest desire to understand what the other fellow’s trying to get at. It requires work on both sides. The speaker has to care enough to know the subject well and from all angles and be patient enough to use language the audience can understand. The listener has to set aside predispositions and actually concentrate on what the speaker is trying to get across. That means you have to stop using up all your mental mechanics to come up with the next argument and start using them to really consider the speaker’s point.

It’s hard to find good examples of that sort of communication today. We see the rapid-fire exchanges on political talk shows or local council members making rambling speeches while their cohorts check their texts and believe they are communicating. They’re not. Real communication requires effort and a whole lot of what they call in the radio business "dead air." The first step to improving communication is a fairly simple one. For 2013, when you are in a discussion about important issues, resolve to listen and then pause at least five seconds after the other guy is done talking before chiming in. Use that time to really consider what was said before diving in with your response. At the very least, it will make you look contemplative. At best, you will be.

My second and final resolution for the new year (I told you I was setting the bar low) is this: When we communicate with each other, be honest.

That doesn’t just mean not to lie. Dishonest comes in more forms than that. It means saying what needs to be said, even when people don’t want to hear it. It also means making every effort to assure what you are saying is accurate and dependable.

That first part should be the easiest, but it’s not. As crass as some will tell you society has gotten, we still hesitate to speak the truth if we fear it will hurt others’ feelings. So, for example, when we see survey after survey ranking our county’s health among the poorest in the state, we need to be honest about the reasons. We need to be able to tell each other we’re fat and, while there are a variety of personal and societal issues contributing to that fact, the cure is to get off our tremendous rears and move. We need to say that being fat is not just a ‘me’ problem, it’s an ‘us’ problem. It adds to health-care costs, increases the amount of days we miss work and, resultantly, makes the community less attractive to businesses hoping to locate here. You being fat may cost me a job. We need to be willing to say that.

The second part – making sure what you say is true – is easy enough to manage that we really have no excuses. Before you drop some quote from the Constitution into your argument or repost some tirade on Jesus’ comments on capital gains taxes, look them up. That doesn’t mean Googling a few words and settling on the first source that proves your point. Be honest with yourself and acknowledge the possibility that “Lefty McLefty’s Progressive Worker’s Report” or the “American Family Patriot God and Gun Think Tank” may not be as reliable as you would like. Want to quote the Constitution? Read it. Want to know what Jesus said? Get a Bible. Some of them even underline His remarks in red. You can’t get much easier than that.

Which really does take us back to my original point. Resolutions work when they are easy. But if enough of us take those small steps, it could actually make the world better for us all.

I’m not sure that’s in keeping with my tradition of setting the bar low, but maybe I can add breaking with bad traditions to next year’s resolution.