Making and Breaking Those Pesky New Year’s Resolutions
Most Americans make New Year resolutions during December and then break them by February. Ancient Jewish wisdom offers some insights into why we make them, why we break them, and looks at some ways to imbue these resolutions with more durability.
Why do we resolve to improve ourselves annually as New Year approaches? This is mostly because, unlike animals, we humans are tormented by deep subconscious anguish at the gap between what we are and what we could be. This deep self-awareness resides in the soul and is one of the best indicators of the soul’s existence.
We all know we could become better people. Better spouses, better parents, better siblings, better employees or employers, or better friends. We know we could be thinner and healthier. We know we could be more prosperous as well as more generous.
What is more, we all know exactly how to achieve these longed-for goals. We know that to be better spouses we need to be more thoughtful, giving, predictable, and cheerful. We know that in order to become better parents, we need to be more patient and consistent. Becoming a better friend, a better employee or better sibling isn’t hard. A little thought will reveal exactly what we need to do. We know that in order to be thinner and healthier we need to eat and exercise wisely.
None of these areas of self improvement for which we yearn involves inscrutable mystery. We know what to do in order to achieve the ends we desire, so why don’t we just do it?
One source of ancient Jewish wisdom is a volume entitled Ethics of The Fathers. Its fourth chapter opens by asking this question, “Who really is mighty?” The question is being asked in order to identify the Biblically correct answer to that question which turns out to be, “He who has mastered the ability to control himself.”
Military tradition has long understood that long before you can hope to control others, you have to have the ability to control yourself. Ethics of The Fathers teaches that true strength isn’t forcing our will onto others as much as it is conquering our own weaknesses.
The great English poet, John Milton, expressed this idea beautifully when he wrote about Oliver Cromwell.
“He first acquired the government of himself, and over himself acquired the most signal victories, so that on the first day he took the field against the external enemy, he was a veteran in arms…”
John Milton was actually very well versed in ancient Jewish wisdom and was certainly influenced by Ethics of The Fathers.
It is thus clear that with a bit more self-discipline, we could do what we know we ought to do. That leaves the question of how to acquire more self-discipline? I would say by treating the quest as a war, and, as in all wars, one must know one’s enemy. Who is your enemy? Who thwarts your ambitions and obstructs the path to your dreams more than anyone else? Yes, that’s right—you!
You are your own worst enemy. But at the same time you are also your own strongest ally. As strange as this may seem, in order to truly benefit from ancient Jewish wisdom, you need to start seeing yourself as two people. One of you is all wise, all rational and always dedicated to the long term good. That’s your soul. The other one of you tries to talk you into short term delights. That is your body. Think of yourself as Pinocchio and Jiminy Cricket wrapped up in one human body. The only question is who is going to lead?
Learning to see yourself in this split fashion is the giant key to self discipline, the avenue to knowing how to lead yourself. Knowledgeable Jewish parents instill this concept of self into their young children and thus contribute to their success later in life.
One part of you is encouraging you to do what you know you ought to be doing. At exactly the same moment, the second part of your makeup is feverishly trying to persuade you to do what you really feel like doing. What a simple and true explanation for the turmoil that we all feel when confronted with certain choices. By understanding this crucial insight and, more importantly, putting it to use, not only can you expect to dramatically increase your self control, you can also confidently anticipate saving yourself thousands of dollars in therapy fees.
Thus we see that the annual exercise of New Year’s resolutions is really an acknowledgement of our souls yearning to soar to self improvement. And we see that our regular shattering of those resolutions is nothing but the triumph of the body over the soul. Sort of like our inner Pinocchio beating up our Jiminy Cricket. It is following our hearts instead of our heads, our bodies instead of our souls.
All of which provides clues to why we make resolutions and why we break them, but is there anything we can do to make them a bit more long-lasting? As usual, Abraham, the father of monotheism, offers some advice. The fourteenth chapter of Genesis describes a war in which Abraham defeated the enemies of the king of Sodom and liberated their captives. The malevolent monarch offered Abraham all the spoils of the war provided he could reclaim his subjects. Not wanting to give the Sodomite sovereign the opportunity of boasting how he had enriched him, Abraham demurred.
However, he didn’t just say “No thanks.” Instead he goes through an elaborate ritual of lifting his hand toward heaven and vowing that he’d take nothing. In other words, he knew how difficult it would be to resist the temptation of instant wealth so he invoked the assistance of an ally—God. Abraham knew that he couldn’t be sure that he would never let himself down, but he felt reasonably confident that he’d not let God down. That is why he brought God in on his resolution, which of course is exactly what converted his resolution into a vow.
The soul’s constant struggle for dominance over the body is nearly always doomed without an ally. Even another human being can be an enormous help. In other words, telling a close friend of your resolution can help you keep it. Each of us prefers to retain the regard of our friends and knowing that our friend is watching our resolve can help greatly.
Following Abraham’s lead and involving God in our resolutions makes for even a higher probability of durability. If it is just me, I can always rationalize interrupting my diet regimen with a quick midnight trip to the refrigerator. If doing so will disappoint my friend in whom I confided my determination to lose weight, I am strengthened in my ability to ignore the summons of my stomach enzymes as they try to tug me to that refrigerator. If, in addition to confiding in my friend, I have promised God during my prayers that I would honor my body by losing weight, that midnight food foraging expedition becomes unthinkable.
The mistake that most of us make each December is thinking that our New Year resolutions must be kept private. Not one of us can make it through life’s journey without the support of other human beings and it is sheer folly to try and win the war against oneself without that support.