The beginning of the year, when many of the pressures are off, can be a time to do some soul-searching. In the lazy, warm days of summer it can do us a power of good to take a long walk in the open air and smell the flowers.
One of my favourite places to stroll on a summer's day is along a cliff path near my home. This well-trodden walkway has lovely gardens on one side and an ever-restless sea on the other.
Among the flowers I often encounter are clumps of bright purple lavender bushes. Not only is the exercise therapeutic, but if I'm feeling disappointed in myself for having broken all my New Years Resolutions within the space of a week, a nature walk can help to restore my perspective.
If I've understood the need to make changes in my life but have been finding it all too hard, I recall the wise words of Joyce Meyer: "There are two kinds of pain: the pain of change and the pain of never changing and remaining the same." (From Beauty for Ashes: Receiving Emotional Healing, 1994.) And if I'm feeling inadequate for the task, the gardens can be a salutary reminder of God's presence and power.
Despite the inevitable disappointments, life for most of us is not too bad on average. That said, the year just past may have been somewhat less fulfilling than we had hoped it would be. Our expectations at the beginning of 2015 may have been too high, but despite our best intentions, we fell back into the grooves we'd planned to escape from at the beginning of last year. We prided ourselves on our willpower, but most of those bad habits seem to have persisted.
We're no thinner or healthier than we were last January, and we look in the mirror and realise this is as good as we're ever going to look. With every fresh wrinkle we know, deep down, that nothing will halt the inevitable aging process. God help us to keep it all in perspective!
For some of us, more than others, the disappointments of 2015 will be keenly felt. Maybe we let others down and feel regretful. Maybe we were let down by others and feel even more regretful. We all meet insensitive people. Perhaps our feelings were trampled upon by the thoughtlessness of others. As the result of last year's experiences, we might even be heading into 2016 feeling a little worn down.
Some stay grumpy
While time heals most wounds and enables life to go on, we've all met people whom life has embittered more or less permanently. While we've had our grizzles—some justified—their lives have really stunk. Unfortunately their souls have shrivelled along with their hopes, and this has made them uncomfortable to be around. As a result we tend to avoid their company as much as possible.
Don't ever quote Jeremiah 29:11 to these people. They don't want to hear that God has thoughts of peace and not evil towards them. They don't want to hear that God wants to give them "a future and a hope."
"You're taking this verse out of context," they will protest, and perhaps rightly. The words were written for an Israelite people in exile and not for people today. For the resentful ones not even the Bible can offer much hope for a better tomorrow. It's impossible to encourage people who are determined to be bitter.
Back to my leisurely walk in the sunshine. The lavender bushes on the cliff top have no detectable aroma, only a purple brilliance that's impossible to miss. I occasionally pluck off a few of the flower heads as I pass, and squeeze them between my fingers. It's then – and only then – that they release their unmistakeable scent. Of course the poor flowers are demolished in the process – they make the ultimate sacrifice – but my hands are left with a pleasant smell as I continue my walk.
The last time I did this I got to thinking: maybe it was not just lavender blooms that released their fragrance when squeezed.
There are always folk in this world who have it worse than we do. Life deals people some cruel blows. Some are told too early that they have a terminal illness. Some have the responsibility of caring for a disabled child. Some are bereaved of a loved one who was too young to die. But somehow, when they have every reason to feel bitter, many of these people have turned out sweet rather than sour.
Amazingly, some of them have become beautiful, gentle people for whom suffering has been a catalyst for character, people who have received beauty for ashes and the oil of joy for mourning. We all know people like this. But how do we explain them?
In the words of the Austrian American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross (1926-2004): "These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen."
Like clumps of lavender, the spirits of these folk can lift and cheer us. For like the lavender, the crushing they have experienced has served only to release their perfume.
Julie Belding lives in Auckland and is a freelance editor, ESOL teacher and grandmother of five.