Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

In the new year, be a first responder

By Bob Greene, CNN Contributor
updated 9:21 AM EST, Sun December 30, 2012
At the funeral service of a boy who was killed in the Sandy Hook shooting.
At the funeral service of a boy who was killed in the Sandy Hook shooting.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Bob Greene: With every new year, there's an opportunity to start afresh
  • Greene: The phrase "first responders" has very much been in the news
  • He says few will match the courage of police officers, firefighters
  • Greene: Each of us can try to be a person attuned to the sight or sound of need

Editor's note: CNN Contributor Bob Greene is a bestselling author whose 25 books include "Late Edition: A Love Story"; "Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen"; and "And You Know You Should Be Glad: A True Story of Lifelong Friendship."

(CNN) -- This is the week, every year, when you come across special displays in bookstores.

(Finding bookstores these days is a challenge of its own, but that's a subject for another time).

During the week after Christmas and before January 1, many bookstores set up tables near the front door featuring calendars and blank journals.

Bob Greene
Bob Greene

If the calendars aren't sold by the first day of the new year, they're probably not going to be sold at all.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



And, next to the calendars on the table, those blank journals, wordless for now. Waiting for the soundless starter's whistle of New Year's Day -- waiting for someone to fill them in.

What they represent is one of mankind's oldest and fiercest desires:

The opportunity to start afresh.

Song honors Sandy Hook victims
Coping with tragedy
Showing Newtown they're not alone

To turn over a new leaf.

"New leaf" refers not to the world of plants, but to the formal, even archaic, term for a two-sided piece of paper. To turn over a new leaf means to flip to a new page. To try to do better -- to close the cover on the scratch-outs and unsatisfactory scrawls of the previous part of one's life and, having learned from what went before, to start over on a clean set of pages. "Tabula rasa," in the Latin expression: blank slate.

And what to do with that blank slate?

Each December, each person makes his or her own pledges. This December there has been a phrase that has been much in the news: First responders.

It is a relatively new description. In earlier generations, the people to whom it applied were referred to simply as police officers or firefighters or emergency squads. The people who, in times of great trouble, run toward the peril and not away from it.

Every day, in every part of the country, they humble us with their courage and commitment. The first responders we have been reporting on and reading about as the old year nears its end have given new meaning to "above and beyond the call of duty":

The officers who sped to Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, and encountered what no person should ever have to see. The volunteer firefighters in Webster, New York, who were unconscionably cut down in a murderous ambush as they selflessly reported to a predawn blaze. The men and women who without hesitation risked their lives trying to rescue the victims of Superstorm Sandy.

Very few of us will ever have the courage or the training or the physical strength of the first responders who have been in the news this year.

But, by following the spirit of their example, we can set a goal for the new year that is about to begin -- for those blank pages of life that await.

Unlike those who wear uniforms, the rest of us are not expected to hurry to crime scenes or fires or places of mass injury.

But, far away from the wail of sirens, there is so much hurting and loneliness that surrounds us in this world, so much need and hunger and solitary despair.

You don't have to wear a badge to be a first responder; you just have to keep your eyes open and be willing to help. To be the one who, without being asked, responds and offers assistance when no one else seems to be noticing. A kind word; an inquiry about if there's anything you can do; a few moments of giving quiet encouragement.

It is such an elementary, yet profound, decision to make as a new year begins: to choose to be a first responder in the broadest sense of that phrase. To be the person ever attuned to the sight and sound of need. To move toward that need without being summoned. To be the one who can be counted on.

We have all been inspired and stirred this year by the valor of the real first responders. We prepare to enter a new year with all of the pages still blank, in readiness.

How we fill them in is our choice. It awaits us, just around the bend.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bob Greene.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 2:12 PM EDT, Fri August 1, 2014
By now it should be painfully obvious that this latest round of the Israeli-Palestinian crisis in Gaza is fundamentally different than its predecessors.
updated 5:24 PM EDT, Fri August 1, 2014
Sally Kohn says like the Occupy Wall Street protesters, Market Basket workers are asking for shared prosperity.
updated 7:31 PM EDT, Thu July 31, 2014
President Obama will convene an Africa summit Monday at the White House, and Laurie Garrett asks why the largest Ebola epidemic ever recorded is not on the agenda.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Fri August 1, 2014
Seventy years ago, Anne Frank made her final entry in her diary -- a work, says Francine Prose, that provides a crucial link to history for young people.
updated 7:50 PM EDT, Thu July 31, 2014
Van Jones says "student" debt should be called "education debt" because entire families are paying the cost.
updated 3:41 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Stuart Gitlow says pot is addictive and those who smoke it can experience long-term psychiatric disease.
updated 7:00 PM EDT, Thu July 31, 2014
Marc Randazza: ESPN commentator fell victim to "PC" police for suggesting something outside accepted narrative.
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu July 31, 2014
Mark O'Mara says working parents often end up being arrested after leaving kids alone.
updated 4:31 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Shanin Specter says we need to strengthen laws that punish auto companies for selling defective cars.
updated 12:45 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
updated 1:43 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
updated 4:28 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
updated 3:39 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT