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Resolving to see the signs

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HIDDEN OPPORTUNITIES What signs will you pay attention to in 2021? (Illustration:

It’s no revelation that the start of a new year prompts many of us to review the past and consider the future. For a whole lot of us, New Year’s goals are a thing.

But this year is different. The past year – the year that from here on out will be known as “the year that changed everything” – has left us in limbo.

2020 shook up our lives like a game of 52 Pickup. Every one of us had our cards scattered on the floor, and then we each got to figure out how to make a new order of them. All that rearranging was and is a challenge: Do I return to work in my office, or should I work from home? Can we go out to restaurants, or should we only cook at home and get takeout? Should we send the kids to school in person, or is it safer for them to Zoom from home? When can I go to the gym again?

As with any shake-up, though, the opportunities to reset, in a good way, are all around us. That is, if we choose to see them.

The actor Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club, The Lincoln Lawyer, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Dazed and Confused) is an unlikely philosophic guide who is more well-known for his inimitable free spirit. But in his new New York Times bestselling memoir Greenlights, the famous Texan shares a unique life perspective that is especially compelling on the heels of this year.

He writes: “The problems we face today eventually turn into blessings in the rearview mirror of life.” Will we ever think of Covid as a blessing? Absolutely not. But can we look at all the changes we have made in the past year and be guided by McConaughey when he writes that everything is “a matter of how we see the challenge in front of us and how we engage with it?” Maybe so.

Maybe the upheaval exposed some possibilities that would have otherwise been hidden in the busyness of our routines, most of which collapsed in March. Can we spend more time out of town, working remotely? Did the absence of parties and events and dinners out result in more time to spend at home, catching up on reading, or Netflix, or projects? Are there dreams we have for our lives, things we’ve always wanted to do, that we now have time to reflect on – and pursue?

The “greenlights” that McConaughey writes about are the easy things, the days when we’re in the flow, the opportunities we simply say “yes” to without much thought. “Greenlights mean go – advance, carry on, continue,” he writes. “They say yes and give us what we want. Catching greenlights is also about timing. The world’s timing, and ours.”

It’s the yellow and red lights, McConaughey writes, that we need to pay special attention to. These are, in his words, “a detour, a thoughtful pause, an interruption.” Hello, 2020. “We don’t like yellow and red lights,” he says. “They slow us down.” The key, McConaughey says, is in recognizing that yellow and red lights are often greenlights in disguise. Or, the yellows and reds might be leading us to our greenlights.

How do we recognize the reds that are leading us to our greens? Trying to figure that out is like taking a leap into the unknown, and it requires some introspection: What opportunities are we going to focus on in the coming year? How are we going to choose them? How are we going to recover from the crisis of the past year, and view our challenges as opportunities?

In a podcast interview with Jay Shetty, a former monk who hosts “On Purpose,” the massively popular health podcast, McConaughey says, “The truth is, we sometimes miss the greenlights around us. They’re there. Are we in a place to receive them? Are we in a place to be patient enough to … see why they came to us? Then, are we courageous enough to act on them … and make them part of our daily habits?

“They come around all the time,” McConaughey says. “You can’t listen to every sign … at the same time, you don’t want to be so closed up that you’re missing them, and you let them pass.”

2020 was no typical year. Maybe with McConaughey’s inspiration, our typical New Year’s resolutions will shift to something deeper: slowing down, identifying the signs, taking stock and recalibrating.

Here’s to a happy and healthy 2021, and to noticing the signs.

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