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In the new year, be a first responder

By Bob Greene, CNN Contributor
December 30, 2012 -- Updated 1421 GMT (2221 HKT)
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.

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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.

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

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