Resolutions for Change

– by Lee Smith, Ph.D.

The New Year resolution is a healthy but often unsatisfying cultural ritual. The Rez may cause more dread than hope because most of us know it as the humbling half-serious failure with which we start each New Year. Ugh! More often, we just think, “Why bother!” Even so, the Rez comes to mind each year as a taunt, “Do I have what it takes to do it?”

Let’s look at this from a couple of new angles and see if we can’t rehabilitate the Rez.

Right up front, notice the ‘solution’ in resolution. Ah, so what’s the problem? Is something wrong? Yup, because all resolutions are about desired healthy change. It’s the wise ounce of prevention. Unfortunately, as we all know, changing anything about how we live isn’t easy. It turns out that the Rez is a light-hearted approach to a very difficult undertaking, like entering the Tour de France on a whim (I must resolve not to exaggerate things so!). And there you have my axe to grind, that the Rez has had the paradoxical effect of teaching people that they can’t really change (or win the Tour de France).

Well, I’m here to tell you that we sure can change. But change is easier when you know in advance that it’s harder than you’d think.

Making durable and sustained change (not of the three week variety) is really about making a change in how we’re living. After all, we wouldn’t be making a resolution if we were fully content with the job we were doing.

Change and the Rez point to some unknown and unpractised world, a way of living that is unfamiliar. We want to do something new. Because it’s new, we haven’t learned to live in that way yet. It’s not yet automatic and customary. As long as something isn’t automatic and habitual, attention and vigilance are absolutely essential.

Like a radio station pumping out hits from the past, our mind pumps out tempting ‘reasons’ to drink or smoke or eat or lay around. It’s not because our mind in some way wants or is designed to keep us from doing what’s better for us, it’s because our mind more easily does what it’s always done.

It’s our nature to do things on automatic pilot. The moment we become unaware, we revert to our automatic patterns, our established ways, our habits. If your Rez is targeting fast-food, watch how your mind greases the way to those fries with quick casual permission, rationalizing like a pro. If we’re paying attention and aware then we can play the superhero and defeat the automatic thought. This can be an epic fight sometimes, a fight which we get better and better at with practice. That’s the point of the Rez, it needs to be practiced over and over. Fall down nine times, get up ten. The key is being aware and catching the automatic foe red-handed. But you have to know that being unaware is too easy, partly because when we’re unaware, we’re unaware that we’re unaware.

So another thing that we have to get ready for is those moments of truth when our resolution stands in the spotlight. We have to be ready for the unfamiliarity of it. Notice that we have deeply engrained habits to recoil from unfamiliarity. We have to see that it’s unfamiliar and that this unfamiliarity is the place where change happens. Effort is expended to do the things that we haven’t yet learned to do automatically. We may worry about failing at these moments. But looking at that worry each time is exactly the thing to do. It’s just a fear, and if it isn’t confronted it will take over and take you places literally against your will. Embody the ‘resolute’ in resolution!

I love how Wendell Berry put it:

“It may be that when we no longer know what to do,
we have come to our real work
and when we no longer know which way to go,
we have begun our real journey.”