The Personalist Project

It’s January 13th.  Do you know where your New Year’s resolution is? 

Mine is right around here somewhere.  Like Mr. Micawber, I’m hoping it will turn up.  But in the meantime, I’ve learned one thing.

It only works if you do it.

Obvious?  Yes.  But it was a revelation for me, and I have reason to believe that plenty of people in high places have yet to figure it out.

The Only Works If You Do It Axiom applies to countless areas of life.  For example:

Organizational tools. My kids laugh at my fondness for charts, schedules, and lists.  They sprout like toadstools all through the house at the start of each new semester, and sometimes around New Year’s Day and Ash Wednesday, too. 

This year I excitedly ordered a homeschool planner that all but promised to make the coffee and educate the kids for me.  The funny thing is, I had ordered an identical planner the year before.  I’d found it somewhat helpful, but my enthusiasm for it waned within weeks.  It wasn’t The Tool that Changed Everything.  But my excitement this year knew no bounds anyway

This annual triumph of hope over certain knowledge is not all bad. It protects me from despair very nicely.  But a tool only works if you use it.

Cures for what ails you. Diagnoses of disorders are ubiquitous.  So are prescription drugs. 

And so are people who don’t "take as directed."  One study puts the rate of noncompliance among chronically ill patients at 35-50%. Some anecdotal evidence suggests it's more like 80%.

That's not necessarily bad: patients' judgment or intuition may be better than the doctor’s. And no one’s saying it’s their fault: they may simply lack the mental wherewithal to keep track of timing and dosage, or they may find it unaffordable or its side effects unbearable.  But  medicine only works if you take it.

Fitness. You can debate the merits of cutting carbs or trans fats or calories or Denny’s till the cows come home.  You can sit in your armchair and compare the merits of a 6am workout with a 6pm one. But diets only work if you follow them, and exercise only works if you do it. 

"There oughta be a law."  Here's a blind spot that comes into play in both domestic and public life.  My kids regularly approach me and plaintively express some wish that begins with, “Mama, can you make a rule that…?”  (The details vary: ...that if my sister loses my earrings she must be my indentured servant for life;

...that if he bops me on the head with his inflatable Spiderman hammer he has to empty all the wastebaskets by himself…) 

I explain that it’s not that simple.  Who will enforce the rule?  Who will supervise the culprit?  Who will establish a system for ascertaining whether the rule is being followed?  Who will adjudicate the difference between minor and major infractions? Is this an enforceable rule?  Are you planning to live by it, or are you just wishing it would happen?  A rule only works if you live by it.

In the same spirit, legislators mourning the paucity of, say, homeowners or high school graduates have been known to declare, as if waving a magic wand, that pretty near everyone who wants a diploma or a deed to his own house must be granted one.  The politicians' mothers are seldom around to ask, “Are you sure you want to do this?    Are you willing to enforce this rule?  Are you willing to live with its consequences?"

So when it comes to New Year's resolutions, it’s easy to mistake what Thomas Aquinas calls a “velleity” for a real resolution, a determined act of the will.  A velleity (says Wikipedia) is "the lowest degree of desire or volition, with no effort to act [...] The marketer Matt Bailey described it as 'a desire to see something done, but not enough desire to make it happen.'"  

One writer--I think it was Fr. Narciso Irala, S. J., in Achieving Peace of Heart--points out that it's rarer than we think to make a real act of the will.  Most of our feints in that direction would be more accurately described as velleities.

So maybe we haven't really broken our resolutions already.  Maybe we didn't truly make any in the first place.  

That might not sound very encouraging.  But unless ignorance really is bliss, self-knowledge is a step in the right direction.

Comments (9)

Kate Whittaker Cousino

#1, Jan 13, 2014 5:24pm

A year or so back, I was reading a book on neuroscience--specifically, neuroplasticity--and it really brought home to me the truth that we really do grow in the direction we act. It was a freeing truth to embrace, because it renders all of my failed and half-hearted resolutions fruitful. Even if this attempt fails, it makes the ground more fertile for future growth. Whereas waiting until I have the perfect, no-fail system and the perfect, no-fail circumstances virtually guarantees I will never grow in that direction.

Kate Whittaker Cousino

#2, Jan 13, 2014 5:26pm

Incidentally, this reminds me of the motto of the 4H organization (which, as a rural farm kid, I belonged to): "Learn to do by doing." 

Katie van Schaijik

#3, Jan 14, 2014 3:21am

A few years back, our family Christmas letter (which goes out every 5 or 10 years) included my resolutions for the year ahead: "More prayer, more exercise, more serious writing."  

A friend from high school wrote back, "Katie, you're so faithful. You've had the same resolutions for 20 years."

I laughed at the idea that having the same resolutions for 20 years could be taken as a mark of fidelity. But then I thought, "Hey, maybe it is!" It's true that I'm a loser when it comes to achieving my goals. But it's also true that I've kept those goals. I haven't given up. That counts for something, right?

I think it does.

On the other hand, I agree with Devra.  We have to do it.

This reminds me of the end of a Richard Simmons exercise tape I used to do.  After a 45 minute aerobics routine, there were 3-4 minutes of ab exercises.  Then, when it's over, there's a little follow up commentary from Richard, wherein he says: "Here's the thing about the ab exercises: You have to do them."  I laughed when I heard it, because I never did those.

Katie van Schaijik

#4, Jan 14, 2014 3:29am

Last year I made a challenging resolution.  I mean, I made several, but there was one in particular that I actually took up. The rest I abandoned in pretty short order.

The one I took up involved constant paying attention, week by week. Jules did it with me.  We were doing okay until December, then we gave up.

The habitual me would judge this a failure.  Another thing I never finished; another shortcoming to berate myself about. Instead, I'm saying to myself: "You got ninety percent of the way there. This year, you'll go all the way." Year 1 was a practice run; year 2 is the year you'll achieve the goal.  Year 3, you'll go even farther.

Jules van Schaijik

#5, Jan 14, 2014 5:59am

This year during new year's eve Katie employed a new strategy.  Seeing that I didn't make any new resolutions (other than the one we gave up on in December of 2013), she began to express her hopes for 2014.  Among the first of these was something along the lines of "... that Jules loses 10 or 15 pounds."  I wonder what Thomas Aquinas would say about that?

Jules van Schaijik

#6, Jan 14, 2014 6:13am

CORRECTION: Katie tells me that I didn't get the facts straight.  Apparently her hope for me was that "Jules will write and publish a philosophy article" whereupon I retaliated with my hope that "Katie loses 10 or 15 pounds."

Devra Torres

#7, Jan 14, 2014 9:59am

Looks like the website ate my last night's comment.

Kate C., I wanted to say, I like that!  It's nice when neuroscience confirms something that makes sense psychologically and spiritually.

Katie, I don't think I've ever heard of someone sticking with a New Year's resolution until December!  I would count that as a success.

Katie and Jules, Max and I have stories like that, too: we remember the same plot details but attribute them to different characters.

I think in a lot of cases we judge something a success or failure according to whether we stick with some "guru's" entire method for doing something--the Flylady system for housework, or the Dave Ramsey system for finances, or a saint's method of prayer.  In many cases what can not only make people feel better but also make them more effective is picking and choosing and coming up with a more customized way of doing things.  It's related to the distinctionn between being inspired by somebody and using your freedom and intellect to adapt something to your situation and personality, on the one hand, and aiming for a slavish and technical imitation of somebody on the other.

Katie van Schaijik

#8, Jan 14, 2014 10:17am

I hasten to add that Jules' "hope" that I lose 10 lbs was taken entirely in spirit it was meant—as a humorous way of pointing out that my mentioning my "hopes" for him was actually a suble form of criticism and manipulation—a way of attending to the speck in his eye rather than the log in my own.

In truth, I think he wouldn't like it if really lost 10 lbs. He'd think I was too thin.  

But we had a lot of fun afterwards coming up with our "hopes" for others. 

It reminded us of the way "I forgive you" statements often come across more like accusations than expressions of mercy. "I just want you to know that forgive you for not being a good friend to me."

Devra Torres

#9, Jan 14, 2014 7:48pm

Katie, I assumed that!

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