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January presents an opportunity to engineer a better year than the last, but many people fail in their intentions by making the mistake of subtracting, when adding is more effective.

Those seeking to lose weight in the new year often vow to cut out their favorite foods instead of adding on more exercise, sleep, or vegetables.

It may be that taking something away has a certain appeal. "Why just get in shape," some New Year resolutionaries say to themselves, "when I can aspire to be a better person?"

It rarely pans out that way. Benjamin Franklin devised a complex system for bettering himself via 13 virtues and charted them on a daily checklist. But the whole thing eventually flamed out.

Others try finding their better selves by adding inquiry into regular life.

PBS religion journalist Judith Valente, now working as a correspondent/producer for WGLT radio, took this to the nth degree by spending portions of three years as a part-time, live-in student at Mount St. Scholastica Monastery in Atchison, Kan., trying to glean wisdom from the Benedictine sisters who care for the abbey.

In her book, "Atchison Blue: A Search for Silence, a Spiritual Home, and a Living Faith," Valente does what few journalists do well: ponder their shortcomings and highlight their inadequacies in an effort to teach others something that can, perhaps, help their own struggles.

It's not an easy read. Valente aches from the beginning pages in which she describes her unresolved longing for answers — "I sensed that monastic life had something to teach me, something I couldn't find in the self-help books lining the shelves of Barnes & Noble, assuring married, professional women like me that we could have it all." Then, after years of study, she discovers "I (had) arrived with a basketful of questions. I left with far more than I had sought."

This is not to say that Valente didn't find some of the grace she'd been seeking. And along the way, she acquired some nuggets of wisdom that can become easy additions to our own harried lives:

Humility. This one was perfect for me and my husband as we took down the Christmas decorations on the last, gloomy day of winter vacation. Describing some of the rituals of community life at the Mount, Valente writes:

"The Mount sisters used to observe a tradition whenever two or more teamed up to work on a project. They would bow to one another and say, 'Have patience with me.' I think of how much more pleasant my work might be if, at the start of an assignment, I bowed to my colleagues and they to me, and we asked one another for patience with our failings."

It's not difficult to imagine how harmonious all our relationships would be if we had the humility necessary to acknowledge our weaknesses and shortcomings at the outset of a collaboration, rather than defending ourselves when we accidentally chip the paint or break a lamp.

Presence. Valente tells the story of how she learned, quite dramatically, that her elderly father unexpectedly passed away. Her advice taught me the right way to be there for others, as she experienced it on the phone with one of her mentors, Sister Thomasita:

"She doesn't stretch for facile things to say, such as 'He lived a good long life,' 'He went peacefully,' or 'He's with God.' She says simply, 'I'm with you in your sadness.'"

That, in a nutshell, is really what each of us wants when we're hurting — to have someone be with us in our sadness. Memorize that line, it will prove priceless when the occasion calls for it.

Leisure. Downtime doesn't get its due in our increasingly secular society, but Valente takes great pains to describe the simple luxuries the sisters at Mount St. Scholastica Monastery indulge in: conversation, laughter, a glass of wine, a freshly baked muffin.

It comes as a surprise to those who don't know many nuns, but the sisters believe that leisure is holy. Valente quotes one sister saying, "Sometimes it's enough just to live your life and love the people you love."

It's plenty. But you'll never regret finding the time to add some humility, presence and leisure to your life.

Esther Cepeda can be reached at estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

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