January. The month when everyone seems to be on a diet and nobody is drinking. The month when carnivores turn vegan and couch potatoes turn gym bunnies. Or is it? Apparently New Year's resolutions are not popular amongst Brits. According to a YouGov survey, only 22% say they make them. A large proportion of those were aged under 25, with the frequency of resolution makers falling with age. It seems that the longer we live, the more cynical we become about our ability to keep them, eventually not bothering at all.
As I get older, I find myself less inclined to make a resolution and yet, as each year draws to a close, I notice I am reflective about the year passing and curious about the year ahead. I become aware of a need to release what is past and affirm the path I want to take. I wonder how different that statistic would be if people were asked "do you desire a fresh start?"
We tend to think of making New Year's resolutions as a secular practice and yet it pops up in some form or other throughout the church's history. In the early Church, the first day of the ew year became the traditional occasion for thinking about past mistakes and resolving to do better. This practice has been adapted at various points in the church's history, notably in 1740 when the founder of Methodism, John Wesley, introduced his Covenant renewal service, to be held on the first day of the calendar year. In addition, many denominations, over the years, have held some form of 'watchnight' service on 31 December during which congregants confess, pray and resolve.
The name withstanding, the resolutions made during such services sound different to the ones we make today. They seem self-effacing - focused on asking God for forgiveness and resolving to return to following the way of Jesus. In comparison, the typical New Year's resolutions of today seem shallow, worldly and, frankly, rather selfish.
But I wonder if the problem is not so much that they are too selfish but not selfish enough, bcause most of our resolutions do not flow from a deep understanding of our own selves but, rather, from a comparison with others or with society's ideals. We want to be thinner, healthier, more likeable or socially acceptable, better informed or more interesting, and so on. I wonder if part of the reason we cease to make these resolutions as we get older is because we start to care less about what others think of us and how we measure up. We begin to drop the act and accept who we are.
And yet accepting who we are should not be the end of our journey into self-understanding and spiritual growth. If self-acceptance is all we want, we will likely become smugly self-satisfied and perhaps even self-righteous. This is not just bad news for those around us but for us too, for if we end with self-acceptance, we deprive ourselves of the pearl of great price. Letting go of comparison signals our readiness to begin a sacred journey into discovery of our true selves. This journey is not sacred because we are gods and the goal of the journey is never ego worship; it is sacred because the more we journey into our true selves the more we discover we are created and beloved by God.
The journey hinges on openness and surrender and there will always be a sense of loss as our false self dies. And yet this is how we gain life in its fullness: our grain of wheat will die but through doing so it will produce many seeds. Jesus goes ahead of us and is always our companion as well as our guide and, indeed, the way itself. He doesn't promise it will be easy but he does promise it is the way to transformation and wholeness. And, eventually, we discover that the very thing that once made us feel awkward, weird or not-quite-right is precisely the unique "this-ness" that was pointing us to this transformation all along.
The irony is that the more we become self-ish, in the sense of being committed to the journey into ourselves, the more unselfish we become. Imagine the spokes of a wheel: at the rim the spokes are far apart but as you journey to the center they become closer and closer together and at the very center they touch. When we journey into ourselves we discover we are not far from those around us but that we are all brothers and sisters, held together as one. And what holds us is God - the one who creates and sustains us with Love and who is always reaching out to us through
Christ drawing us ever deeper into that Love.
When we approach New Year's resolutions from this perspective, the question is less "should we make a resolution?" and more "how can we set truly meaningful resolutions?" It is not by staying on the surface, looking at how our lives compare with others or a fantasy life which seems pleasant, attractive and secure. It is by going deep into ourselves and asking questions about our lives, our desires and fears, and staying there long enough to have our eyes opened to see the answers, even when they may be surprising or perhaps painful. When we make a resolution based on what we see in the deep places, when it truly resonates with who we are, then we can be sure we have a resolution worth sticking to.
A guide on this journey is St Ignatius of Loyola. The daily examen practice attributed to him was originally intended an an examination of conscience at the end of each day to help Jesuits see where they needed to ask for forgiveness. Now it tends to be framed as an examination of consciousness or, more simply, a prayerful review of the day. There are many versions but all centre on gratitude, forgiveness and paying attention to feelings or "movements" within the soul.
This year, as a bit of an experiment, I decided to approach New Year's resolutions using a version of the examen. I began by asking for God's light to see myself and my year clearly - my actions, words, thoughts and relationships. I then reflected on all I have to be thankful for, recognising all as gifts - the people, the experiences, the moments of joy, wisdom and compassion received or given. I then allowed my thoughts to wander over my year, trusting that what popped up had some significance. I paid attention to the feelings surrounding these moments, asking myself, for example, "am I attracted or revulsed by these memories?" or "am I at peace or disturbed when I enter into this moment?"
Finally, I ended by asking God to help me see where I need to release and where I need to hold on and spent some time in silence, palms facing upwards ready to receive.
I was surprised by how this was both easy and difficult. It was easy because the structure was straightforward and thoughts were quick to present themselves; it was difficult because it is hard to go beneath the surface and stay there. We do not always like what we see. And yet because I had begun by asking for God's light I was not afraid or alone.
Somewhat disappointingly, no neat and tidy resolution presented itself. But a few words bubbled up as well as some relationships to be paid greater attention and, in the between of all these, a direction to walk in became clear. And, for me, a direction to walk in is more freeing and less lonely than a resolution to keep. You can - and probably will - fail to keep a resolution but a direction always remains open to be walked.
Jennifer Goodyer is a writer and artist living in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter @goodyerjen