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 6:10 PM EST, Mon November 24, 2014
If Obama thinks pushing out Hagel will be seen as the housecleaning many have eyed for his national security process, he'll be disappointed, says David Rothkopf.
updated 8:11 AM EST, Tue November 25, 2014
The decision by the St. Louis County prosecuting attorney to announce the Ferguson grand jury decision at night was dangerous, says Jeff Toobin.
updated 3:57 AM EST, Tue November 25, 2014
China's influence in Latin America is nothing new. Beijing has a voracious appetite for natural resources and deep pockets, says Frida Ghitis.
updated 4:51 PM EST, Mon November 24, 2014
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a press conference in the capital Tehran on June 14, 2014.
The decision to extend the deadline for talks over Iran's nuclear program doesn't change Tehran's dubious history on the issue, writes Michael Rubin.
updated 2:25 PM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Maria Cardona says Republicans should appreciate President Obama's executive action on immigration.
updated 7:44 AM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Van Jones says the Hunger Games is a more sweeping critique of wealth inequality than Elizabeth Warren's speech.
updated 6:29 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
obama immigration
David Gergen: It's deeply troubling to grant legal safe haven to unauthorized immigrants by executive order.
updated 8:34 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Charles Kaiser recalls a four-hour lunch that offered insight into the famed director's genius.
updated 3:12 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
updated 10:13 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
updated 8:21 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
updated 5:56 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
updated 3:11 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
updated 8:45 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
updated 10:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
updated 12:59 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
updated 9:58 PM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
updated 4:41 PM EST, Tue November 18, 2014
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
updated 8:21 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
updated 7:16 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
updated 11:07 PM EST, Sun November 16, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT