Why You Should Make Resolutions (Even if You Can't Keep Them) - Monday Coffee With Jack and Tollers (Day 4)

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


Resolutions are hard. For many among us, the idea of even doing resolutions is taking a vow of self-defeatism: “I will do this thing that I most assuredly will lose at.” For someone that considers himself (in the roughly approximate words of the band Paramore) “pretty optimistic for a pessimist”, I still find myself year after year committing myself to resolutions despite the fact that year after year in the past I have largely failed at most resolutions I decide on. I have never read 40 books in a year (thanks to children!). I have yet to read through the Bible in a single year (thanks to Leviticus!). I have yet to forgo sugar completely (thanks to sugar!). I have yet to get into the best shape of my life (thanks to sugar!). On and on it goes. This year I have no less than five resolutions set out (sugar makes a reappearance as do various other things like finishing that book, re-learning my German, etc.).

But this raises a question: Why keep resolving amidst all the failures? Why not just give it up entirely? 

For me, there is something about saying ‘I failed’ that is, can we say, so self defeating. It is a statement of fact, sure. If we set out to make a goal and do not make that goal, we failed at that goal just as if we set out to run five miles and we only go three we failed as well. But there is a question for me concerning the psychological undertow of failure and giving up in light of failure. Once we have decided ‘I don’t make any resolutions because I fail at them’ we are saying something about ourselves. It says, first, that we give up when we don’t achieve something. And, of course, this kind of approach to failure runs counter to the old school wisdom of ‘try, try again.’ If, as a child, I had given up riding a bike because after even a solid handful of attempts I couldn’t stop falling I would have missed out on something no able child should miss out on. And as any parent knows, half the battle of raising children is to teach them not to give up even in the light of routine failure. 

Second, it stops us from thinking through the need to redesign or restructure our goals. A lot of the failure in our resolutions happen because our mental notes and powers are not strong enough to keep the resolution in the forefront of our mind. Simply saying to oneself “I want to drink a hundred ounces of water a day” and never actually metering that will always lead to a goal that is not attained. Likewise, trying to do too much at one time will inevitably lead to failure across the board. Again, this goes against the time old wisdom of ‘Don’t bite off more than you can chew.’ Strategizing how we set our goals, how we pace them, and the complexity of our goals is important. For example, I have it on my resolution list to write a page a day and re-learn my German this year. Last year I had these same resolutions and failed at both of them. Why? Not because I couldn’t do them but because I hadn’t strategized them well. This year I have built in three flexibilities: first, the habit I first want to develop is writing. I won’t begin re-learning a language until at least March. Secondly, if I need to take writing down to three days, I will do that or I will write two pages on one day and count it for the next. Third, writing is more important to me than my German and if I can’t accomplish both I will let go of the latter. Of course, it’s still possible that I won’t accomplish either of these. But in that case, I return to my note about failure and the necessity of continually picking oneself up again. And that brings me to my third point.

I think giving in to our failures about goals and resolutions goes against the why we should even be optimistic about resolutions in the first place. G.K. Chesterton, as the quote above illustrates, believed that the new year (and, frankly, any newness at all) was very much tied with conversion. It says yesterday was the old and today is the new. To convert is to switch over, but as all of us know who go through some kind of spiritual, moral, or lifestyle conversion the newness is not absolute. When one wants to convert a house from a run down and bedraggled shack to something that can be enjoyed in the most symbolic sense of a ‘home’, this does not happen overnight. It does not happen without failure (perhaps time and time again). It does not happen without surprises that throw one off track. Likewise, the father who wants to have a better handle on his anger does not make the resolve and achieve it instantly. He will, more than likely, fail at it time and again. But can we or should we just settle into saying ‘Because I have failed at this, why even bother?’ Absolutely not. Because the point is not success or failure. The point is always being in momentum towards the There are, of course, other reasons to dislike New Year’s resolutions. Perhaps the conventionality of it all (the contrarian could make one’s resolutions on January 2nd then) or perhaps one feels more comfortable thinking about resolutions in terms of ‘goals’ or ‘aspirations.’ Or perhaps the idea of ‘resolution’ seems hard and rigid and one needs a bit more flexibility (this is where strategy is helpful). New strategies may be needed, for sure. But giving up on resolving to be new is not an option.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was no stranger to misfortune, wrote on New Years Day 1943 the following words: “...the optimism that is the will for the future should never be despised, even if it is proved wrong a hundred times; it is health and vitality…” (Letters and Papers from Prison, 15). Silly little goals and resolutions like drinking more water or making one’s bed can certainly remain silly as long as they are an end to themselves, as if that’s all our resolutions are meant to be about. But if we place them in the broader context of newness, of conversion, and of habitualizing and ingraining our optimism for the future, we can get past the frustration of our past failures and even free us from the frustration of the inevitable failure of our future resolutions. Our resolutions are not as much about the tasks as they are a vision of ourselves and a vision of the world. They are practice for the bigger things. And that means that the point, in the end, is not the resolution; the point is the resolving! 

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