Habits, Not Resolutions, for the New Year

Habits, Not Resolutions, for the New Year January 1, 2022

This January 1st, consider dropping the resolutions and spending time, instead, building new habits.  

The End of Resolutions

Does anyone still do New Year’s resolutions? The mid-January jokes are predictable even as they strike home. The only mystery is whether the diet, gym membership, and library card usage will last a whole month, or just a week or two.

What, though, is the alternative, if we’re wise to the fact that resolutions are a recipe for failure and shame? Do we give up, join the joke, grow cynical about change, and make peace with all our uglier habits? If there’s something not right about an annual attempt to will ourselves into a better life, there’s something worse about giving up. 

Metanoia

Christian culture values change. The New Testament word is metanoia, conversion. Maximus the Confessor likes the word because its root is nous, the Greek term for the heart, or the center of a person’s being. A metanoia is a turning of the whole person.

We’ve altered the English term “conversion” somewhat in public discourse, so that its first level of meaning is about choice of religion. I “converted,” one might say, to Judaism or to Methodism. But the biblical meaning is not primarily about choice. It’s rather about a whole nous-centered turning. We convert from something—sins, destructive behaviors—and toward something else—life, the way of Jesus. 

Metanoia involves a reordering of actions. It’s accompanied by grief, as the old way of living passes out of ones life like a death. “Now I rejoice,” Paul says, “not because you were grieved, but because your grief led to metanoia” (2 Cor 7:9). It’s almost as if he is imagining a physical journey, from a familiar place to somewhere new. Anticipation, hope, grief.

All this is to say that there is a theologically appropriate impulse in our desire to make changes in our lives every January 1st. The trouble is not the desire to change, but the way we frame it. 

Habits for Beings with Bodies

Let’s see if we can locate the difference in that framing. A resolution is an operation of the will. Resolutions are appropriate things to make. Humans are creatures with active wills, which is to say with an agency within us that moves us to respond to things we desire. 

The trouble comes when we stop the process there. To resolve to do something is a good start. But on its own it is nothing but an assertion, a vocalization of will. A resolution is not enough, because humans are more than walking wills. Paul’s metanoia isn’t just a resolution, but awareness of grief and a desire to change so palpable as to take on physical characteristics.

Thomas Aquinas picked up from Aristotle that ancient adage about humans being creatures of habit. Virtues and vices, for Aristotle, are about the habits that shape the kind of person we’re becoming. Thomas takes up this language and says that sin and righteousness alike are matters of habit. So we are courageous not because we will, in a single intense moment, to have courage. We are courageous, rather, because over a lifetime we have developed the habit of courage. Likewise, we were cowardly that time, not because we willed cowardice, or failed to will courage. We cultivate habits of avoidance and instant gratification, and when the moment for courage comes, we fail to meet it. 

Similarly we forgive, Thomas tells us, not because we can sweat ourselves though the heroic effort of not feeling a wound. No, the forgiving person is not the strong-willed hero, but the one who has spent time cultivating empathy and generosity. When the moment calls for an act of forgiveness, it feels no more heroic than a well-practiced pianist hitting the right key in a concert. She’s all practiced up: forgiving comes like muscle-memory. 

Attention to habit reminds us that we are embodied beings. Our wills migrate through flesh and organs, and flesh and organs get hungry. They also get tired. They send messages to our wills of boredom, stress, or sadness. Bodies find themselves standing in front of pantries, or staring at social media feeds. And as much as we hope, every January 1st, that the will can command the body, more often the structure of obedience runs the other direction. 

Designing for Metanoia

Some recent literature in neuro- and behavior science has helped me reshape some of my own habits. Writers like B. J. Fogg and Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey may not see themselves as disciples of Thomas Aquinas, but to me they pick up where he left off. They help us see that failures to change behaviors are almost never a simple matter of lack of will. It is at least as much to do with the way that our bodies move around in our familiar spaces. About the resistance of our patterns to expansion or diversion. We don’t need new willful resolve; we need tiny shifts in the architecture of the familiar. 

Resolutions can get the priority of grace mixed up, too. We might think, like Pelagius the monk, that our job is to earn God’s favor with our moral resolve. But attention to habits can be a way of letting the light back in. God wants to give me the gift of generosity. How might a small shift in the way I respond to strangers allow me to recognize that gift? Habits are ways of practicing, not earning, God’s grace.

Could we redesign the architecture of our lives so that we could receive this grace? So that our vices could die off, and virtue could grow? What would it look like to find the smallest step to address my habit of resentment? How might I place a prompt in front of me, so that I get some practice at gratitude?  What does a daily habitualizing of forgiveness look like, so that when the moment of performance comes, I’m ready? 

Those are the questions I’ll be working on this January. I’ll be spending some time with Thomas, Aristotle, and Dr. Fogg, and considering new ways to alter my habits. Instead of making heroic resolutions, I’ll be designing for tiny metanoias. 

Many thanks to my colleague Steven Tomlinson for his wisdom on matters of habit formation. 

Thanks, also, the editors of Feedspot, for naming my column among their top religion blogs!


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