I recently heard New Year’s resolutions described as a to-do list for the first week of January. I’m wondering on this Monday morning, one week into 2018, how you are doing on your own resolutions?
A wise friend pointed me to an op-ed piece The Only Way to Keep Your Resolutions, by David DeSteno, N.Y. Times, 12.29). The article talked about resolutions, how and why and whether they make a difference. The statistics aren’t great. By January 8, 25% of resolutions have “fallen by the wayside.” By end of year, less than 10% have been fully kept.
I’ve always regarded New Year’s resolutions with some suspicion. Same for Lenten disciplines, or commitments to change my life upon milestone birthdays (the ones with zeroes on the end). A resolution can become one big, looming ought, another piece of evidence (as if needed) that I fall short. They become obligations. They are more about rules, and less about grace.
Spiritually speaking, they can become what one preacher called ‘teeth-gritting Christianity.” I will be a better person. I will be a more loving person. It’s my duty. It’s what good people do. It’s what clergy do. The problem with making resolutions is two-fold for me. First, it’s apparently not all that effective. Second, it’s not very graceful.
So I found this op-ed piece illuminating. It wasn’t written by a preacher. It was written by a professor of psychology at Northeastern University. A great deal of the article has to do with self-control. That caught my eye, because in the work we do charting spiritual growth with RenewalWorks, we note that one of the important virtues for folks in the spiritual continuum is self-control. St. Paul lists it as one of the fruits of the spirit. Too often in my own experience, and as this columnist notes, self-control is a matter of rational analysis and will power. It becomes a kind of law. Too often I fall short. I miss the mark, which is how a friend, a rabbi has described sin.
Dr. Denota argues that authentic self-control comes not from force of will, but from social emotions like gratitude and compassion. In his studies, he has found these emotions incline people toward patience and perseverance, qualities needed to fulfill resolutions. “When you are experiencing these emotions, self-control is no longer a battle, for they work not by squashing our desires for pleasure in the moment but by increasing how much we value the future.” Theologians (and others) might refer to that as hope, or maybe faith, or maybe love, or maybe all three.
The article goes on to say that the key to self-control is putting something else ahead of our own immediate desires and interests, responding not to the cost-benefit analysis of being generous, but rather responding with these social emotions, i.e., gratitude and compassion. That sounds to me a lot like Jesus.
The author concludes by inviting readers to cultivate these emotions: “Reflect on what you’re grateful to have been given. Allow your mind to step into the shoes of those in need and feel for them. Take pride in the small achievements on the path to your goals.” Perhaps that’s a plan for the coming year. It’s not too late to embrace these as resolutions for 2018.
So a week into a new year, if the good professor is right, 25% of your resolutions may have slipped away. Not to worry. Tap into that social emotion of compassion and have compassion on yourself. Continue your way through this new year with expressions of gratitude and a compassionate perspective, key elements to the patient perseverance needed to fulfill resolutions.
He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? -Micah 6
So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation. -II Corinthians 5
For last year’s words belong to last year’s language.
The object of a New Year is not that we should have a new year. It is that we should have a new soul and a new nose; new feet, a new backbone, new ears, and new eyes. – G.K. Chesterton
Rev. Jay Sidebotham
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