I’ve always had a love–hate relationship with New Year’s resolutions. I suspect most people feel the same way — that is, if their attitude toward the concept is anything more positive than pure revulsion.
There might not be much of a significant practical distinction between January 1 and December 31, but there is something compelling about the mentality of allowing oneself a clean break and fresh start. It is a very human desire to long for the chance to begin again, and to do so with hope.
And so those of us who subscribe to this craze are busy this time of year, turning over our new leaves, with various promises to others and to ourselves, knowing full well that we’ll fail to keep them. New Year’s resolutions seem to be so ritually forgotten or discarded that it’s easier to find commentary on abandoning a goal than on successfully pursuing one.
I’ve come to see through many years of promising and failing that making the promises is valuable in itself, regardless of whether or how faithfully I end up following through. To be sure, managing to stick to eating well or exercising or getting to daily mass is a better outcome than simply setting the goal and proceeding to fall off the wagon.
But perhaps many of us let our goals drift by the wayside because we enforce them by treating ourselves too strictly. When, in an inevitable moment of weakness, we hit the snooze button or eat a cookie or forget to pray, we shrug, brush off the sinking feeling of guilt, and let ourselves slide back into life as usual, before we asked too much ourselves.
Perhaps the key to a successful New Year’s resolution is to ask of ourselves the right things and to do so recognizing that we aren’t aiming for perfection. The purpose of a well-crafted resolution — whether you begin working towards it on January 1 or December 1 — isn’t to succeed perfectly; it is to give ourselves a reason to try.
Though I remain an avid fan of setting resolutions just before the beginning of a new year, I’ve begun doing so with a mind toward actually working on my projects more than I brainstorm about them, setting goals that account for the fact of 24-hour days, giving myself grace when I miss a day or six.
I write this essay well into January, knowing full well that readers who haven’t already rejected the idea of resolutions entirely will shrug to themselves and maybe roll their eyes. “The month is already well underway,” you might be saying. “Maybe I’ll consider it for 2022. And 2021 is looking about the same as 2020 from where I’m sitting, so why bother?”
Begin again anyway. If you’re allergic to the idea of goal-setting, pick just one big dream and make the steps to get there nice and easy. If you’re used to setting twelve ambitious goals and following through on none of them, pick three and make them just a little bigger than you think you can reach.
The biggest threat to self-improvement is in fact a dual danger, two tendencies that seem opposed but often creep up on us hand in hand: perfectionism and defeatism. They are as much of a threat in the spiritual life as in any other area.
If we are too confident in our own ability to strive after virtue, if we believe perfection lies within our grasp, we will be prone to pride if we succeed, forgetting that all is grace. Worse still, if we fail or seem to make no progress, we become discouraged and give up entirely.
Instead, armed with our promises, let us give ourselves room to fail, knowing that it is worse not to try at all and that, when we fall, we need not stay down long.