Struggling with resolutions doesn’t mean you’re failing, just human

I don’t do New Year’s resolutions, and a few days ago I posted Emily Scott’s doubts about the idea of starting over, but there are times when I commit to a new project or effort. In early December, at my first checkup in too many years, I decided while talking with my plan’s health coach to set a goal to lose at least 20 pounds by Memorial Day. As part of that, I made some commitments about portion control and exercise. So far, I’ve adhered to the portion control plan, but the exercise? Not so much. I keep meaning to start. I keep finding reasons today isn’t a good day to take it on. Each time I feel entitled to do the wrong thing because… fill in the blank: I’ve had an aggravating day; I don’t feel well; I am too busy; I have plans later. This has been going on for weeks and I’m too embarrassed to admit it to my health coach, but does it mean I’m a bad person? Does it mean I’ve failed? No, it means I’m human.

People enjoy swearing off, and New Year’s is the biggest swearing-off ritual around. But all too often the best intentions come up against habit, craving, temptation or just fatigue, the abstainer slips, and then they feel like a failure. Sometimes the self-criticism blurs into self-hatred feeding a downward spiral that takes them to a worse place than if there had been no resolution in the first place.

The missing ingredient is love. All processes that involve self-restraint — whether once a year events like New Years and Lent, specific methods like Alcoholics Anonymous and Weight Watchers, or paradigms like original sin — all must be accompanied by love: both a sense of divine love for us, and a loving attitude towards ourselves. Without love, either we are simply “behaving” (or misbehaving), or we’re making some dry calculation of karmic reward and punishment.

A grounded place of love

St. Augustine (my patron saint) famously said, “Love and do what you will.” He means that if your actions are coming from a place of love — a grounded place of harmony with the universal connectedness of everything — then doing the right thing isn’t a struggle. He adds, “let the root of love be within; of this root can nothing spring but what is good.”

As easy as it can be to do the right thing when grounded in love, without that grounding a person usually can only behave for so long, in a state of what is sometimes called “white-knuckling it” — obedience without love — before the mind starts rationalizing giving up and temptations become too attractive. And even if you’re able to hold on for a long time, that doesn’t prove you don’t need love; only that you have a strong will. And that is no life. I’ve been there. I stayed sober for years once without having changed interiorly, without being grounded in God’s love. It was possible (until it wasn’t) but it was a constant struggle.

This love, this sense of groundedness and connection, is essential because we will fall short, sometimes in spectacular ways, usually in embarrassingly mundane ones. We are not saints. And actually, by that standard, neither are the saints. Read about their lives and you’ll find plenty of character defects at play. The point is: you aren’t God. So give yourself a break.

And that brings us back to St. Augustine with the terribly misunderstood concept of fallenness, of original sin. So often felt as a condemnation, recognizing your own imperfection can instead be a comfort. We all fall short. We all get caught up in temptations and turn away from God. This doesn’t mean everyone is evil, as some fire-and-brimstone types would have it. It means everyone is human. And being given permission to be human, to not live up to perfection, to make mistakes like every other human, is a pretty big load off the shoulders.

Jesus didn’t rebuke people for personal sins. He reserved his anger for hypocrites and those who disgraced the divine through their actions. But to the individual sinner, he said: Welcome, join me; change your ways but for right now, just have a seat. Jesus was radically welcoming and radically accepting. I’m not saying he didn’t find fault with behaviors, but he didn’t deem a person unacceptable because of their behavior. They were still welcome at his table. In fact, like the parable of the lost sheep, he paid more attention to those who needed to hear his message.

So if you want to make a New Year’s resolution, along with losing weight or quitting smoking, consider making a resolution to be understanding of others, and to have compassion for yourself. When you struggle while trying to live up to your best intentions, that’s not failure, that’s a reminder of the extent to which you are not running the show. Look at how hard it is for us even to follow through on some little resolution like exercising 20 minutes three times a week. And that’s OK. We’re only human. Just dust yourself off, ask forgiveness, and try to do better.

How is your New Year’s resolution going? Have you learned lessons from struggling with resolutions, this year or in the past, or with any other time when you’ve failed to meet your own best intentions. Share your experience here in comments. It will help others to know that none of us is perfect.

About Phil Fox Rose

Phil Fox Rose is a writer, editor and content lead based in New York. He is coordinator of Contemplative Outreach of New York, helping promote centering prayer, which has been his contemplative practice for nearly 20 years. Raised atheist by ex-Mormons, Phil has journeyed through Quakerism, deep ecology, Buddhism and Catholicism. Now he's a congregant, worship leader, cook and chair of the leadership team at St. Lydia's, an awesome dinner church in Brooklyn, NY, and spends as much time in nature as possible. Phil has been a political party leader, videographer, tech journalist, punk roadie, software designer, sheepherder, stockbroker and downtempo radio DJ. A common thread is the process of learning about stuff, figuring it out and then sharing that understanding with others. Follow Phil by RSS feed, email, Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.

  • Paul Raymond

    Hi Phil, really nice to find your blog. I’m from Cambridge, MA and have been on a progressive spiritual path for much of my life. I was influenced by Thomas Merton’s contemplative prayer while a teenager and living a wild youth. I’ve since gone onto a lot of Mindfulness Practice and working now with 12 Step/12 tradition practices. But its the Music of the Christian Church (ex Vivaldi, Gloria em D, Terra Pax) that brings it all back to center.

    So thanks for supporting the merging of the old new, Christ and Dharma – its great. And frankly, I can’t help but be excited by the evolution of wisdom rolling around. I’m going to try and make it to one of the Dinners at St. Lydia’s. Shalom, Paul – PS – Ever read Teihard or Jung or Walt Whitman?

    • Phil Fox Rose

      Thanks Paul! I appreciate your comments and would love to see you at St. Lydia’s some day. And to answer your question, I’ve read bits of Teihard, Jung and Whitman, but never explored any of them deeply.

  • Erin Pascal

    This is a great post! I agree that we should not be too caught up or too obsessed with doing the best in all things. We should give ourselves a little room for mistakes. Have a break, take a deep breath, exhale, and promise yourself to do better next time. :)

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  • Petrus Byl

    Thanks for this encouraging post. If we judge others by the company they keep then Jesus would not have been judged favourably. I think He hung around with sinners because they knew they fell short. We all fall short but admitting it is what matters ; and reaching out to Jesus like one about to go over a waterfall and drown only to be snatched out of the raging torrent by the only One who can. But we need to reach out. Again thanks.I love reading them.

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