How many times have I begun living again? By that I mean: made resolutions (as we do around this time each year) and begun to reset my daily living to better approximate how I want to live, or, in my better mind, how the Lord wants me to live. I sort of take appraisal a few times every year: New Years Day (of course), Ash Wednesday, September (usually around Labor Day), and finally at the start of the Liturgical year, the First Sunday of Advent. At each beginning, I take stock, and then try to adjust my life to better approximate what it should look like.
Some things do stick and become permanently part of how I live my life. I remember a priest who was a member of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). He gave a conference during a retreat in which he shared the changes his life took when he become sober. He would wake up early in the morning and could not fall back to sleep. So he decided to make a virtue out of that defect by putting on a pot of coffee and doing his spiritual reading in the quiet of the early morning before the noise and the phone calls began. This struck me in a powerful way. I heard the voice of Jesus urging me to follow the priest’s example. So I decided that I would do the same. I began to wake up an hour earlier and got a little coffee maker for my room and began reading. That was over 30 years ago. I still do this, even on vacations! I began to write down the books that I completed by doing this. I know it is hard to believe but, I have the documentation to prove it: I read over 1,000 books using this simple method!
Thus, sometimes we decide on some reformation of how we do things and it sticks with us, altering our lives.
It is also true that many new beginnings meet their endings just a few days after they are begun. This should not discourage us, since it is very human to reach beyond that which we are capable at any given time.
What psychologists say about ‘SMART’ goals can help us in planning for our new year’s resolutions. They must be Specific, not so vague that we can’t discern whether we do them or not. They must be Measurable, so we can have some objective proof that we have done them (e.g. 15 minutes exercise each day, not just exercise each day). They must be Achievable, that is they have a chance of completion in a relatively short amount of time. They must be Relevant to the basic direction of the goals set; and they must be Time Bound having a beginning, middle and an end. See? SMART!
This is in contrast to something like, “I am going to be a better person this year.” That is not specific enough and it is certainly not measurable and, hence, not quite achievable. Resolutions like this one usually are forgotten by January 4th if they last that long! But, if the resolution follows the SMART pattern outlined, it can really change us. Even a small change that is stuck to and followed through can have lasting effects on us.
So I will tend to help people to believe in their resolutions when they are appropriate and sincere. We do great harm if we treat these honest attempts at cooperating with God in our growth as though they are here today and gone tomorrow. Cynicism is always the work of the devil since it tries to destroy one’s honest attempts at self betterment.
It is a gift of God to keep getting up, even after a disappointing fall, and to believe in God’s grace and the effectiveness of our real attempts to grow. Maybe we are successful only once in every 5 tries, but that success can go far in helping us to fulfill God’s Will in our lives, provided we put God first, over and against our own will and desires.
Trying to make resolutions and following them cannot be, however, chiefly about self-help or self-betterment. Then the danger is that we are feeding our pride. There is a great difference between fasting and dieting, though some of the results are identical. Fasting is about subjugating our natural appetites to the glory of God. Dieting is done chiefly for health reasons or, more basely, for vanity.
The desire to do something wonderful for the Lord and better discipline ourselves so that we can be more effective in serving Him puts us squarely in the virtue of Hope, the unsung middle virtue between Faith and Love. These three virtues are so important that the lack of even one of them can be disastrous to our lives and our future.
Rather what we are speaking about is what Mother Teresa meant when she said we should do something beautiful for God. May this new year bring us more closely to this self giving to God!