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The Art of Not Making New Year’s Resolutions

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There is indeed an art, not easily mastered, of not making New Year’s resolutions. Only with great attention and training can one overcome the carefree indolence by which so many, each January 1, lapse into list-making. Perhaps, like me, you are one of them. This year and finally (we say to ourselves), I am going to lose that extra weight, get a (better) job, finally make it through the 1,200 pages of Les Misérables–and not skip over the twenty-page meditation on the Parisian sewer system.

Yet isn’t there something frivolous in all this feverish goal-setting, something irresolute in all this making of resolutions? For in deciding how we are going to transform ourselves in the coming year, we too often forget the full richness of what it means to make a resolution–not a mere New Year’s resolution, but a resolution that will really deliver the transformation we seek. Odd as it may sound, a real resolution is not a self-made strategy for a happier life. No; a real resolution is the fruit of a conversation with our Father, a conversation centered on what he wishes for us in the coming year. To keep one’s attention on his wishes rather than our own, to ask what on my wish list I might even sacrifice for the sake of pleasing him–that is an art very few, least of all myself, possess.

Saint Francis de Sales, in his Introduction to the Devout Life, describes what has become a famous and trusted method of prayerful meditation, a method he suggests should end with the making of resolutions. He even advises us, each year, to review and renew our resolutions. Just as a watch must occasionally be taken apart in order to be properly cleaned or mended, so too, the soul must be taken apart “to redress, rectify, and examine diligently all its affections and passions, that all its defects may be repaired.”

There is nothing wrong with taking apart our “watch” and cleaning it each January 1, though we might better do so at the beginning of the liturgical new year, i.e., at the beginning of Advent. In any event, such an understanding of what it means to make a resolution is very different from the jejune practice most of us indulge in at the turn of each new calendar year. What should be an act of discernment and listening turns out to be more of a lullaby to our dream-self. And what we miss in not learning the art of real resolution-making is the way in which God, in speaking to us his understanding of how we should be transformed, offers a far richer happiness than we could ever imagine on our own.

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