Discernment and New Year's Resolutions

 I have usually entertained some ambiguity, if not cynicism, about New Year's resolutions. In part, I have almost always pretty quickly broken them. As one wag once put it: " A New Year's resolution is something that goes in one year and out the other". Or, as Oscar Wilde says of them: " Good resolutions are simply checks that men draw on a bank where they have no account". Certainly, there is something originally pagan about the habit of making New Year's resolutions. January takes its name from Janus, the two-faced God who looks both backwards and forwards--the God of entrances and doors. So, the custom of looking both backwards and forwards through resolutions dates from around 153 B.C. Besides its pagan origins, New Year's resolutions are, frequently enough, a pretty Pelagian attempt to remake our own lives by our own wits and resources, through sheer grit or will power.

      Yet, there are decided spiritual resources to help us look backwards and forwards and make resolutions. Most Catholics, after all, do that every year in Lent or every time they go to confession with their sense of praying for " a firm purpose of amendment". Jews look backward and forward every year at Yom Kippur. We can hear two Christian voices about making New Year's resolutions. One comes from T.S. Eliot who, in his poem, " Little Gidding", remarks: " For last year's words belong to last year's language and next year's words await another voice, and to make an end is to make a beginning".  Resolutions are about making an end to some bad habits or practices and forging a beginning for some more helpful or useful or spiritual practices. G.K. Chesterrton echoes this theme: " 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. Unless a particular man make New Year resolutions, he would make no resolutions. Unless a man starts fresh about things, he will certainly do nothing effective."


      Sociologists who have studied New Year's resolutions note that Chesterton has a point. Those who make resolutions are ten times as likely as those who don't actually to make changes in their life-style. In one sample study of 282 respondents, sociologists discovered that most resolutions involve the following: weight loss; stopping smoking; devotion to regular exercise; better use of time or money. Yet, the same study also found that only 46% continued their resolution after six months' time. There are several obstacles to success in carrying out resolutions. Some people actually do not know how to set realistic goals. Perhaps, their very best resolution is to begin to discern how to do that. Others don't really expect that they will have the resources to carry out their resolution. They despair of grace helping their intention.

       There is an acronym to help us think, spiritually, about making resolutions:Smart. S stands for specific and SM adds simple. Don't just say: " I will lose weight" but specify it to be " roughly a half poind a week until I reach my realistic and desired weight". And perhaps add: " If I can not achieve my goal on my own, I will join Weight Watchers."   Keep it simple merely implies that our list of resolutions should never be terribly long. Change takes some time and effort. Too many goals at once confuse us and dissipate our attention span and energy. A stands for attainable. It would be near foolhardy for me at age seventy-three to say: " I resolve to run a marathon this year.". R stands for relevant. Here the spiritual work of discernment asks whether the resolution will make me wiser, more compassionate, more joyful, more able to set my boundaries and limits more effectively. T stands for timely-- it is now the right time for me to start to do something more about X. Again, this  T might keep our resolutions to a short list of doable changes. In a sense, this simple check-list around the acronym SMART is something akin to what, in spirituality, is called discernment. Of course, spiritual discernment is not just some Pelagian plan. It also probes what God wants me to do, become, feel deeply.

     The secret to successful resolutions entails making a plan, thinking year round ( so, if the resolution is about losing weight, it takes into account occasional feasts, holidays and vacation and does not assume there is no flexibility to the plan). It also takes into account partial successes and failures in adhering to the plan. When I say, " Make a plan", this involves clear discernment. Thus, just to say " I will pray daily" is insufficient in itself. I need to ask : " Well, what is a good time in the day or place to do it ? Is there some routine, such as reading the daily office as a lectio pia, which will help me do it, even when I do not feel like it?"  What are the obvious obstacles to my praying daily in a pattern ? What are the pay-offs in not fulfilling my resolution ( indulging laziness, allowing drifting in myh life?). I also have to find some deeper spiritual motivation for the resolution. How does it fit into my deeper intentions, desires ? Thus, do I want to lose weight just for ego or vanity or do I actually want to be more healthy, have more energy, ward off certain diseass such as diabetes ?

        In fact, only a very few of my own New Year's resolutions have ever borne fruit. Many of my successful resolutions in life did not eventuate from New Years as such. Perhaps Anais Nin gets it right when she says: " I made no resolutions for the New Year. The habit of making plans, of criticizing, sanctioning and molding my life, is too much of a daily event for me."  But New Year's is at least one time ( as Lent or preparing for confession are others) for some stock-taking and discernment. The main problem with most New Year's resolutions is that they are not informed enough by the kind of spirituality which should drive, as Nin notes, the daily tasks of conversion, molding my life more in keeping with my deepest desires. But since New Year does present one obvious moment for such stock- taking, it can be a deeply spiritual occasion. Why not, like Janus, take year's end to reflect, spiritually, by looking backwards ( in a kind of examination of conscience for the year) and forwards ( with some real, if finite, firm purpose of amendment?)? Why not take the occasion of a new year to engage truly in the spiritual practice of discernment?

John A. Coleman, S.J.


Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Bill Mazzella
8 years ago

You covered all sides of the question. So much so that if one would make a counter argument you could say I covered that. At any rate it is a nice summary of all the factors involved. So I'll take all of the above. 


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