What We Require

I am one of those people who love to make New Year’s resolutions. Why not create a vital, remodeled persona, new and improved? Just write down all the things you want to accomplish, all the projects you want to complete, all the character improvements you want to make, and all the skills you want to master. At the start of a new year, it seems reasonable that resolutions would carry extra momentum. January feels like an especially auspicious time to become the person I’ve always wanted to be. If I write it down, surely I’ll be able to keep my desk neat, my home well organized, and no thank-you note will go unwritten. Surely this is the year that the houseplants and garden will not be neglected. I’ll find more time to play with my kids, my friends, and my husband. I’ll read more books and watch less television. I’ll exercise more and eat fewer desserts.

The fantasy life contained in your average New Year’s resolution is rich and sweet. It starts with the premise that thinking of an ideal self will increase the likelihood that you will be transformed. Resolutions are also aesthetically satisfying; they give the appearance of order and control. They allow you to picture yourself without flaws, limitations, or setbacks. How could the new, improved model ever feel the kind of fear, inadequacy, and need that the old self has structured its life upon?

But my favorite delusion, embedded in a list of resolutions, is the illogical but stubborn belief that only more effort is required for a better life. No real change of heart is needed. Just do what has never worked before, only do it more. Try harder. Work harder. This is music to the ears of all of us who try to defy gravity by pulling ourselves up by the boot straps. Some of us believe that we can earn love and approval. We think that the race belongs to the swift. No matter what Jesus said, we secretly are convinced that “the first will be first” and “the last will be last.”

The word “resolution” in my thesaurus reveals the shadow side of our “best laid plans.” To be resolved includes being “relentless, self-willed, and obstinate.” To be resolved means “to set one’s jaw, to nail one’s colors to the mast, to burn one’s bridges, to stop at nothing.” It also means “to be rigid, inflexible, hell-bent, and like a bulldog. To take the law into one’s own hands.”

What I admire about religion is its stubborn refusal to accommodate these foolish illusions. Religion, while honoring human effort and inviting our firm resolve to be the best human beings we are capable of being, insists that we need to experience what it means to be loved and to receive grace. What we require will come to us. Effortlessly.

Mechthild of Magdeburg’s words need to go right beside my New Year’s resolutions:

  • Effortlessly love flows from God to humanity
  • As the source strikes the note, humanity sings.
  • The holy spirit is our harpist,
  • And all strings which are touched in love must sound.