Messages that people wrote on confetti are displayed in Times Square, New York, Monday, Dec. 28, 2020. The confetti will be dropped on Times Square during the New Year's Eve celebration, which unlike a normal year, will not have the tightly packed crowds of revelers. Credit: Seth Wenig / AP

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The Rev. John S. Nieman has been an Episcopal priest for 33 years. He presently serves as Priest in Charge at St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church in Belfast.

What a year it’s been! The pandemic. Economic stress. A fraught election.

Many have responded with suspicion toward the institutions essential to society’s successful functioning. Others have responded by lashing out at perceived enemies. And behind it all are years of creeping bitterness and even hostility toward fellow citizens. In the midst of challenges that could be drawing us together, we instead are tearing ourselves and each other apart.

As we enter a new year, let’s turn our hearts and minds in a new direction. We know the pandemic will be with us for a while longer. We know the economy will not recover overnight. We know people will continue to profit off lies and conspiracy theories. We cannot magically change our outer circumstances or others’ behavior.

But we can change our response. And that change begins with a commitment each one of us can make to take care of our souls. By that I don’t mean a retreat into navel-gazing while ignoring the problems of our society or denying personal trauma. I mean acknowledging that change, including big societal change, starts with ourselves.

The Christian faith, which I embrace, includes a call to individual self-examination. Christians are not unique in that. All the enduring world religions as well as many secular meditative practices include a discipline of self-examination. A key purpose of self-examination is to be humble and honest with ourselves about the attitudes and behaviors we hold deep within that are destructive of ourselves and others: anger, self-righteousness, bitterness, deception, hatred, blaming, name-calling, even violence.

Self-examination is not about fostering bad feelings about ourselves for negative thoughts or regrettable actions. It’s about the ever-present hope for change, inner healing, and learning to see the essential dignity of ourselves and others, including those toward whom we feel bitter or angry.

Nor is self-examination about being pollyannaish about real evil in the world. No honest person will deny that ruthless, malignant, deceptive people exist and have a powerful effect on others. Those people need to be exposed and held accountable for their actions. But we do not need to let them turn us into mirror images of themselves.

The gospels tell a story about religious leaders who challenge Jesus because his followers do not adhere to the purity laws governing proper table etiquette set down by their ancestors. The leaders self-righteously lash out, creating conflict with their fellow Jews. Jesus famously responds “it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles. What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles” (Matthew 15:11-18).

The question the story begs for each of us, of course, is “What is in my heart?”

Here are a few suggestions to get started on an answer and on a path toward change:

Turn off the noise: The talking heads on television, radio and social media who feed your prejudices and animosity toward others. Your soul is too precious for them to own.

Take five minutes at the end of the end of day in a quiet place for a simple review of the day. What did you think, say or do that nourished your and others’ dignity? What undermined it? What attitudes were at play?

Keep a simple journal to track how you’re doing. Accept from the start that you will experience twists and turns over time that bring disappointments as well as new insights. You’re human, so be gentle with yourself.

Resist the temptation to give up when the going gets tough.

Find someone who loves you enough to be honest to join you in keeping each other accountable.

The future can be better for all of us. It starts today, and it starts with you and me.