The Personalist Project

Accessed on September 21, 2023 - 4:19:29

New Year’s Resolution Reality Check

Devra Torres, Jan 12, 2014

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.