Most of my memories of New Year's Eve skip right over that televised ball dropping in Times Square to the picture of a chambered nautilus that hung on the wall next to the television in my parents' Florida apartment where we all gathered.
While everyone else was counting down to midnight - Ten, nine, eight ... three, two, one! - I couldn't help thinking that those numbers represented the counting of the chambers in that nautilus shell, from oldest to newest. And, in a way, a much more fitting end to the year gone by.
As a nautilus grows in an ever-expanding spiral, it seals off the previous chamber it has outgrown. Water- and airtight, each empty chamber lightens the rest of the shell sheltering the creature. The more chambers outgrown, the more buoyant the shell.
The end of the calendar year often brings with it a desire to leave the past behind and start fresh. But more often than not, we find ourselves still shackled to unsealed mental chambers crowded with hurts, resentments, disappointments, and discouragements. Emptying and sealing these chambers can seem an impossible task. The more years we accumulate, the more we seem to drag around with us.
So what's the secret of the nautilus? How do we seal off those chambers and make sure they aren't simply entombing the weight still inside?
I got a glimpse of how to let my spiral grow lighter through an experience involving one of my most painful public moments.
I had been in a church meeting agitating for a particular action - pushing hard, in my youthful zeal, on the others involved in the decision. One of them, someone significantly older and much more experienced than I was, became so exasperated that he lost his temper and hollered at me to SHUT UP! The outburst left me mortified and in tears, him in embarrassment, and everyone else in a shocked silence.
Shortly afterward, he apologized to me and I to him. But the awfulness of the moment lingered for years. Every time I'd see him, I'd always recall how poorly that one exchange reflected on both of us. And though we continued to work together amicably on many different projects, he seemed just as awkward around me as I felt around him.
I know we were both praying about it. I know we both wanted to be forgiven and feel forgiven.
My guidance came from a sentence written by the Founder of the Church both this man and I belonged to, Mary Baker Eddy. She wrote: "The way to extract error from mortal mind is to pour in truth through flood-tides of Love. Christian perfection is won on no other basis" ("Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures," page 201).
It was God's love - and God as Love - that could free both of us from this ugly memory. The more I thought about divine Love, the more I saw that its very infinitude left no room to harbor anything unlovely. This spiritual truth countered the lingering error of a perceived hurt or humiliation.
I felt the vastness of Love pour over me and through me, cleansing me of the shards of that memory still pricking my feelings. I was learning to live in the eternal now of Love. Every time I saw this man, I made the effort to look at him through the eyes of Love and see all the good he was living and doing. I felt a purification taking place in my view of him ... and of myself. I began to understand the truth that each of us is made in the image of God, mirroring divine Love back to God and to each other.
The last time I saw him, I'd looked up from a hymn to smile at him with heartfelt appreciation for his example. He glanced over at me and smiled back with such genuine warmth and kindness and love, I felt bathed in forgiveness ... and restored in grace. The last vestiges of the past had been cleared as Love sealed a now-empty chamber of history, buoying both of us up higher.
A few weeks later, he passed on - a revered elder statesman of his church and community. It was a privilege for me to have known him and learned from him how to leave behind the past.
So as the celebrated end-of-the-year countdown begins, we can think of it as numbering the chambers of the past that one by one divine Love works with us to seal off and help buoy us through upcoming years that hold the promise of being more expansive than the ones we've outgrown.