I don’t believe in New Year’s resolutions, and I’m offering my top-ten reasons (David Letterman style) for NOT making any resolutions for 2018. Bear with me and I think you’ll be convinced, for distinctively contemplative reasons.
Let’s start with the most practical reason:
Number 10: They don’t work
This first reason may be anecdotal, but think back and ask yourself if you can recall a time that you kept a New Year’s resolution through the end January? In fact, can you even recall what your previous resolutions were? Unless you’re making the same resolution over again each year, I doubt any of us can recall previous years’ good intentions. (And if you are making the same resolution every year, then maybe it’s time to try something different?)
There’s another practical reason New Year’s resolutions don’t work: when we inevitably fall short of our annual renewal of good intention we are thrust into a wave of regret, self-judgment, and blame, or at the very least, disappointment. These negative emotional thought patterns foster neither healthy change nor mental health. Not making a New Year’s resolution will save you needless pain and suffering.
Enough with the practical side, let’s dig deeper into why NOT to make a New Year’s resolution.
Number 9: We’re terrible judges of wants vs. needs, of what will actually make us happy
One of the most interesting findings in the field of happiness studies is that we human beings are terrible at predicting what will actually make us happy. We tend to predict that acquiring large, desirable items will make us happy; but when we acquire a large item the temporary buzz fades and we quickly move right back into our previous happiness set-point. Conversely, things that we predict would be rather insignificant – such as mild but chronic pain – have a much more deleterious effect on overall happiness. And many people report high levels of happiness even after traumatic injuries, loss, and death of loved ones.
In fact, there is only thing that has been consistently identified as most important for long-term happiness, and that is the quality (not quantity) of our most intimate relationships with family, friends, and significant others. If you need some empirical evidence, read up on the Grant Study – one of the longest and most thoroughly researched studies on human happiness ever conducted.
So, even if we were to stick with our resolutions, they may not be as important as we think they are on December 31st. If it’s true that we are not good at predicting what will make us happy or discerning between true needs and momentary desires, then we need to go deeper, which leads us to No. 8…
Number 8: True desires and needs reveal themselves slowly
If we really want to align our intentions and actions with our deepest, most important needs, then we need some kind of practical way to get in touch with those needs. This is what ancient monastics called “discretion” or “discernment,” and it is developed by a regular practice of pausing to get in touch with our bodies, minds, and souls in the present moment. A regular contemplative practice provides a space where we can simply witness – without immediately judging or reacting – the stream of desires that flow across our minds. What we begin to realize is that our initial reactions or desires are often misleading and lead to disappointment; but we also realize there is a deeper source of embodied wisdom underneath all those cravings that drive us to act impulsively in our daily lives.
Despite the negative images of the body and its desires that have become embedded in many spiritual traditions, the truth is that the point of contact with our true needs and desire is found in our bodies, if only we can learn to pause and tune into those deeper needs in the heat of the moment. The power of a regular discipline of contemplative prayer or meditation is that it trains us to disengage from our immediate urges, so that we can begin to discover our deeper needs. As we do this we’re developing the virtue of discernment.
Number 7: Control is illusion
If you really think about it, about 99% of what occurs in life is beyond our control. It is also true that the quality of our lives directly correlates to what we do with that other 1% (I’ll deal with that remainder in No. 5). For now, it’s worth contemplating the depth to which we live under the illusion of control. Pretty much every contemplative practice I have ever encountered, regardless of the tradition in which it is embedded, aims at shattering our illusion of control. For many of us, it is only some experience of loss or suffering that forces us to begin to loosen our grip on the lie of control. Breaking through this belief of control is the doorway to true and lasting freedom; but few of us want to face the truth. Unfortunately, it is often only after the suffering and loss that we awaken to the grace that emerges from letting go.
Most of us are more like Charleton Heston, defying God or fate or life to pry our illusion of control from our cold, dead hands.
Number 6: Self-Will is short term power
Now we’re getting even deeper, as we move into consideration of the will. In the ancient world, there was a much closer connection, linguistically and philosophically, between the will and the heart; both were considered to be the inner core of the human person. In our Western culture where we value freedom, autonomy, and independence, we tend to reinforce our sense of the power of the lone human will as the driving force not only of our individual lives, but even of culture and progress. Not only is this false (even our most individualistic heroes were embedded in networks of empowering relationships – see No. 4), but it also reinforces the illusion that we are masters of our own destiny (see No. 5).
Whatever temporary mastery we exercise today must be reconciled with the fact that imposing self-will is one of the most feeble and ineffective ways of resolving our problems. I might be able to resist that ice cream in the fridge for one day, but it will still be there again tomorrow. (I know because I just checked the freezer:) This leads to the question of what to do with our will, which leads to…
Number 5: Surrender to the true Self/divine will is long-term power
Surrender is the most important, and most difficult, reason NOT to set a New Year’s resolution. If you’ve read this far, you’re probably open to the possibility that whatever New Year’s resolution you were thinking about committing to is rooted in short-term desires that come from self-will and are not likely to contribute to your deeper happiness.
But this just gets your toes up to the edge of the cliff. The hard part is letting go and surrendering; but it’s also paradoxically the fast track to going deeper. In a daily practice of contemplative prayer we learn gradually to surrender to the will that transcends our immediate desires. We surrender to the true Self, or the divine will. This coalescence between true Self and divine will is perhaps best captured in the Sanskrit word Atman. Realization of atman is the point of convergence between our human will and God’s will for us, it is the realization of my existence as always and everywhere in union with God. It is saint Augustine’s discovery of God within his own restless soul, recounted in his confessions. Once we tap into this power, we’re now moving not under the illusion of self-will, but we’re moving with the grain of the universe – or better, with the flow of the Creator and Source of the universe. Paradoxically, in this flow our will and our choices are still our own, but they are aligned with and guided by a Power greater than ourselves.
Number 4: Grace is subtle; it’s also the most powerful force in the universe
We can do nothing to earn grace; all effort in contemplative practice is simply the prelude that allows us to surrender our will, to open a small space in the soul for grace to rush in. Saint John of the Cross writes that grace is like sunlight flowing into a room through a window; it will fill whatever space is available. Grace can also be likened to water; its constant flow can wear away at even the most hardened of rocks, such as, say, my will. I might be able to set a resolution to dig a deep hole through self-will and individual effort, but I will never be like the Colorado river carving out the Grand Canyon.
My self-will can impose itself upon reality and upon others through a kind of violence and force. But grace can work true miracles – it can teach me forgiveness and love, it can guide me to compassion and blissful moments of self-forgetfulness.
Number 3: Real transformation is a communal process
Another reason New Year’s resolutions don’t work is because real change requires a tremendous amount of support. Numbers 5 and 4 deal with the divine support we receive, divine will and grace respectively. But we also need a lot of support from others to face down self-will, surrender to God’s will, and allow ourselves to be changed in ways that align with our true needs and the needs of others and the world around us. New Year’s resolutions tend to be focused on immediate and selfish needs, but real human relationships challenge us to move out of ourselves in ways we can’t fathom on our own. Despite our images of lone contemplative, perhaps dwelling in a cave in the Egyptian desert or the Himalayas, spiritual traditions recognize how much we need both the support and the challenge of community, of other bodies with real needs who make demands upon us.
Number 2: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction
If this sounds familiar, it’s because it is Sir Isaac Newton’s third law of motion. When we seek to impose our self-will, whether upon ourselves or upon others – we initiate a reaction that is met with equal resistance. I see this most clearly with my kids. If I “demand” they do something, their immediate reaction is “NO!” If we place a demand upon ourselves to change, there is an equal reaction pushing against it. Saint Paul writes it this way, “Parts of me covertly rebel, and just when I least expect it, they take charge” (Romans 7:23).
The only true alternative is to surrender to the divine will, to move with, or be animated by, the grace of God that wills our deepest well-being and the good of all others (notice that these two are not in conflict). Grace, the confluence between the divine will and the desires of the true Self, exist outside of Newton’s third law because they literally function on a different level. The only question is how long will it take me to wake up to this fact and open myself to this deeper reality? To fight against this law is to court suffering; to surrender is to begin the arduous journey of liberation from the relentless demands of the false self. This is the real reason that not setting a New year’s resolution will save you from needless suffering (see No. 10). (If you’re skeptical of my claims thus far, one option might be to stick with your resolution and see if it brings true happiness or frustration. Run a little experiment, if you like.)
[Cue Letterman]: “And the number 1 reason NOT to set a New Year’s resolution this year is…”
Number 1: Let God do for you what you can’t do for yourself
I didn’t come up with this one either. This one comes directly from the promises of Alcoholics Anonymous, but it’s a fitting end to the list. The number one reason not to set a New Year’s resolution is because God will blow your mind with the surprises s/he has in store for you. But we have to make room for the deeper transformation; we have to get out of our own way, and out of the way of the currents of grace. Daily commitment to our contemplative prayer and meditation is one of the ways we do that.
So let me leave you with another paradoxical twist: to the extent you want to make a New Year’s resolution, let it be an intention to surrender. Leave the rest up to God.