Interfaith Insight - 2023

Permanent link for "What's the status of your New Year's Resolution?" by David Baak on January 10, 2023

Articles about New Year’s resolutions were everywhere this past week—just do a Google search and you’ll see what I mean. We make lists of things we want to change, or of growth areas we think we need, or of opportunities to be explored. Best of intentions. But, as one headline I read stated: “It’s time for our annual ritual of setting some resolutions and disappointing ourselves soon afterward by not living up to them.” 

Statistics indicate that half of Americans say they usually make New Year’s resolutions—and that 80% of those fail to keep their resolutions into February; only 8% stick with them the entire year.

We start strong, but within a few weeks, just like last year, our resolve slackens. In a recent article in Timeprofessors and authors Jay Van Bavel and Dominic Packer admit about their own resolutions, “…Twitter reappears on our phones … our warm beds grip us tighter when the alarm goes off for our morning jogs …. meditation never had a hope.” Within no time at all we feel defeated.

I wonder why we spend so much of our energy on the negative, either when we do not fulfill our promise, or in our anxiety and disappointment over that unfulfillment. I wonder if there’s a different way with a more positive result.

There are many origin stories of New Year’s resolutions – from the ancient Babylonian’s Akitu festival, to John Wesley’s Watch Night prayers and resolutions, to the promptings of age-old Hindu wisdom and the five eternal yamas, and many more.

I like the story of the practices introduced when Julius Caesar changed the calendar in 46BCE so that the year began on the first day of January. He named the month for Janus, the two-faced god who symbolically looked back into the previous year and forwards into the new year. Janus was a patron and protector of arches, bridges, time, transition, doors; of endings and beginnings. The Romans offered sacrifices to Janus and made promises of good behavior for the year ahead. 

The practices were communal and “the resolutions held a distinctly moral flavor,” according to historian Bill Petro. It was a time of new beginnings and promising to do good; energetic intentions to live positively. So, New Year’s resolutions have religious roots, however secular the practice has become today. Now, instead of making promises to the gods, most people make resolutions only to themselves.  

Therein may be some of our difficulty — our resolutions become overwhelming, especially when we try to meet our expectations all by ourselves.

I think the power of the variety of religious observances of “new beginnings” is helpful in responding to or maybe even eliminating the disappointment and self-doubt of resolution failure. That variety is a strength of our interfaith community and it is a good reason for understanding the diversity of beliefs and faith practices—our own, as well as others, even when we aren’t members of a particular group.

Our secular experience of resolution-making is focused on January 1, but “new beginnings” are also common to the observance of the many other markings of new time periods among our various religious communities. 

We may be most familiar with the Jewish Rosh Hashana, usually in September, at the “head of the year,” and the accompanying Yom Kippur that together conclude the past year and focus on beginning again. Or, the Lunar (or Chinese) New Year in later January that is also a time for new beginnings and, with family groupings, for reflecting on the past year and making resolutions for the coming year. Or, the Muslim month of Ramadan, while not a calendar beginning, it is an annual time of prayer, fasting, resolution and self-discipline. Even the Christian Advent, at the beginning of the annual liturgical cycle before Christmas, is a time of reflection, spiritual renewal and anticipation into the future. 

These are positive, communal observances that include regret, reflection, remembrance, confession and forgiveness but also a forward-focus on the opportunity for what is new, what is possible and what is next. 

I draw at least a couple of principles from all of this.

Most importantly, consider making a resolution within a supportive community, at least with one or two others. Authors Van Bavel and Packer suggest that “the people around us and the groups we belong to have a substantial influence on behavior—influence that can be leveraged to help achieve our goals.” Look to your community, religious or secular, to help you along the way.

And, a principle that is amplified by the practices of our various faiths, suggests that we work toward our resolution as a daily practice. Then, a resolution is not so “ultimate” or limited to one day a year. Each day is a new day, a start-over day, one day at a time, one step at a time. That is pragmatic…and it is life-giving.

Making a new resolution with support and recognizing that every day can be the first day of your resolve is a positive, energizing approach toward meeting your goal.

For me, that means at least a fifteen or twenty minute walk, even in these cold days, with an encouraging (accountability) partner, even if I missed yesterday — and then start over again, with the goal/resolution that this year two or three miles will become a habit by the time the warm, sunny new beginning of Spring arrives.

Happy New Year!

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