By Martin Elfert
What’s your New Year’s Resolution?
I have never been all that great at New Year’s resolutions. For the past couple of decades, when folks have asked me, What is your resolution for 1995, or 2005, or 2015? I have rarely had a good answer. That’s not because I dislike the rituals of the New Year. To the contrary, the changing of the calendars, with its focus on what was, what is, and what may be strikes me as an important occasion for contemplation in a culture that isn’t always that good at that sort of thing. But the resolution question – somehow it always catches me off guard.
I started to think about resolutions in a new way a few years ago. That’s when I first began to learn a little about 12-Step spirituality, the tradition that gives us Alcoholics Anonymous and its descendants, Narcotics Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, and so on. Part of the genius of the 12-Step movement is that it recognises that, “I’m never going to drink again” is a mountain of a promise, a goal that only a handful of alcoholics with uncommon willpower might ever be able to reach. “I’m not going to drink today,” on the other hand – well, that just might be possible.
It is the witness of AA that makes me wonder: could the reason be that New Year’s resolutions are something that I – and that many of us – struggle to connect with, and that even more of us struggle to keep, is that their promises are just too big? I’m going to get all A’s in school this year; I’m to get up early every morning and go swimming; I’m going to bring my spouse breakfast in bed every day; I’m going to lose forty pounds I’m going to stop judging people: these are huge promises. They are hard to keep promises, they are promises that set the stage for failure and for the appearance for one of the least helpful of all the emotions, which is shame.
What if the 12-Step tradition suggests to us a healthier and a more effective way of setting goals? What if the 12-Step tradition suggests to us a better way of making promises to ourselves?
With that “what if” in mind, as 2015 begins, here is what I’m going resolve to do today. Maybe, Abby, we could call it this New Year’s Day resolution: Today, I resolve to let my “yes” be yes and my “no” be no.
The instruction to let your “yes” be yes and your “no” be no appears in scripture in the context of swearing oaths. But it is actually us pretty good advice for decision making in general. That’s because the invitations for you and for me to take on projects – at work, at school, in our families – are constant. And the temptation to try to say yes to all of these invitations is huge.
Now to be clear, saying yes to some of those invitations makes the world a better place and it makes our lives more joyous. I am glad to be able to help out with the work of Family Promise, glad to be part of the team of writers at Spokane Faith and Values, glad to have a vocation that gives me the privilege of sitting with folks in times of love and loss. Saying yes to these invitations has been a gift.
But I am also aware of a couple of big dangers that lie in yes. First, if I say yes too often, it means that, without really noticing it, I end up saying no to other things. I end up saying no to my responsibility to take care of myself. I end up saying no to my responsibility to do things to the best of my ability – to say yes to everything is to ensure that you do everything in a scattered and superficial way. I end up saying no to my vocations as a husband and as a father. Every choice, as St. Thomas Aquinas puts it, is a renunciation. Notice what you are renouncing when you say yes.
Second, I am aware that, if I don’t periodically reassess my yes, it can shift from a joy into a burden. Every not-for-profit of which I had been a part (including every church of which have been a part) has had several volunteers or employees doing jobs that were wearing them down. When these folks first said yes, their work was mostly a delight. But somewhere along the way, it mostly became a burden. When that shift happens, it can be hard to remember that it is okay to take a break. There was a time when it was a good and joyful think for these folks to say yes. Now it might be time for their no to be no.
And that, Abby, is my resolution for today. If you like, you might decide to take it on as well. If this resolution feeds you, if it teaches you, if it in some way gives you energy, if it sets you free, then tomorrow you might choose to resolve to do it again. If not, that’s fine: let it go. There are other resolutions waiting.
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