Traditionally, of course, the New Year is a time to make resolutions. Like turning over a page full of messy scribbles to reveal a fresh, clean sheet waiting to be written upon, we shake from our feet the accumulated dust of the old year’s failures, frustrations and disappointments, and confidently tell ourselves things will be different this year. At least, that’s the theory.
We humans are easily enslaved by habits that either contribute nothing positive to our lives or, indeed, are outright destructive both to us and to those around us. As such, that times and seasons provide us with opportunities to cast off the old and bring in the new is, in my opinion, a good and necessary thing.
And yet, in spite of our desire to put our most optimistic face forward as we once again pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and promise ourselves that we will do better this year, for many of us New Year is always tinged with a sense of inevitable disappointment that no amount of manufactured optimism can fully dislodge. It’s as though we’re trying to convince ourselves of a positive outcome that we know deep down probably isn’t going to materialise. This is why, as they get older, people generally end up discarding grand notions of resolutions: they begin to know themselves well enough to realise that some things just aren’t going to change by virtue of a simple rational decision. And, as they look back over the years behind them, they’re forced to conclude that life and experience bear out this realisation.
This all sounds very fatalistic, doesn’t it? Am I saying that we’re all doomed to keep on repeating the same old mistakes ad infinitum, and that any effort at positive change should hence be abandoned before it can even begin? Well, no, that’s not really the point I want to make.
I think New Year’s resolutions are pretty harmless in themselves, and the desire for self-betterment is generally good, admirable and to be encouraged. But there’s also a danger lurking in the shadows behind all our good intentions: the false notion that inner satisfaction and fulfilment depend on performance and achievement. This is especially dangerous for people with a religious faith, because it easily feeds into the subconscious belief that God will be pleased with us if and when we pull our socks up and stop being such a disappointment.
The harsh reality is that our shortcomings and neuroses tend to follow us around for most of our lives, no matter how much goodwill and effort we direct at jettisoning them. We might feel we’ve got the better of them for a time, but just wait until this particular situation crops up, or that person who has the knack of rubbing us up the wrong way gets in our face again, and we’ll soon find that they spring back into action, unbidden, as though they were part of the very fabric of our being. Perhaps they are.
So it is that we often set ourselves up for disappointment. We tell ourselves that we need to achieve this or that in order to find some kind of satisfaction or contentment: and either we achieve the desired goal and find that it fails, after all, to deliver the abiding sense of contentment we hoped for; or we fail to achieve it, thus reinforcing the feeling of our own inadequacy and uselessness.
I find that there is a great paradox at work here. We rightly recognise that we are living in a state of discontent, and we reason that if only we can achieve X, pull off Y or attain Z, our discontent will be banished and we will reach the nirvana of personal fulfilment. But the very striving after performance and achievement that ensues merely serves to feed the deep-seated insecurities that gave rise to our discontent in the first place. Thus we chase our tails in pursuit of a goal that seems to recede the closer we get to it, always remaining tauntingly beyond our reach.
The lie that underpins this cycle of frustration and disappointment is the idea that our discontent is caused by our limitations and shortcomings, so that that if we overcome the latter we will succeed in expelling the former. The reason this is a lie is that, as I hinted a couple of paragraphs ago, limitations and shortcomings are part of who we are. We can no more rid ourselves of them than the proverbial leopard can change its spots. And even if we managed to completely eradicate some particular defect, another would doubtless spring up in its place.
Is contentment ever to be found, then, or are we doomed to the perpetual pursuit of the unattainable?
I believe that contentment is indeed to be found, but herein lies another great paradox: the path to contentment lies not in battling our shortcomings and limitations with gritted teeth but in accepting and embracing them as part of our humanity, and indeed as part of what makes each of us the unique and uniquely beautiful piece of divine handiwork that we are.
You see, the more we battle our limitations and shortcomings, the more we are, in effect, fighting against our own humanness, and the more elusive any kind of inner peace and contentment becomes. But when finally we lay down our arms, forgive ourselves for our flaws and foibles and learn to accept that we are who we are, warts and all, we begin to experience the kind of true contentment that is not dependent on circumstance or achievement. And the irony of it is that we are much more likely to produce abundant good fruit from this place of self-forgiveness and self-acceptance than ever we could by yearning and knocking ourselves out trying to deliver the goods.
Of course, it’s easy to wax philosophical in a blog post, but I really don’t want you to get the wrong idea: this path to true contentment is not one on which I have travelled far and can thus sagely dispense the tried-and-tested wisdom of long experience. But it is a path that my feet have finally begun to find, and I’m slowly learning to trust where it leads and to turn away from the sirens of success and accomplishment. It’s a long and faltering process, but hopefully, with God’s help, I’ll get there in the end. My personal prayer for 2015 is simply that I’ll make it a little further along this path.
It seems to me that ultimately, the only real success in life is to be reconciled with who we are so that we can live from a place of genuine peace and fulfilment that has no need to grasp after recognition or approval. Only from that place can we truly become givers of life and ministers of healing and reconciliation.
[ Image: Steve Corey ]