Saturday, February 19, 2011

Be it resolved (Sunday Reflections for January 16, 2011)

(It's taking me a while to get back in blogging mode and a couple friends have prodded me about it--thanks for the push! So I will be playing catch up publishing the past few Reflections articles and apologize that these may feel a little out of date.)

How are those New Year’s resolutions coming? If you’re like most people, some or all of them may have already fallen by the wayside. Or if your intended resolution was to procrastinate less, perhaps you haven’t gotten around to making any yet. Hey, 2011 is only a couple weeks old—plenty of time.

I don’t know how long the idea of New Year’s resolutions has been around. Nor do I know when they became focused almost exclusively on issues of diet and exercise—and thereby exercises in futility. This is the time regular gym goers complain about the flood of new members crowding the facilities. “But just wait a few weeks,” they continue. “They’ll be gone soon and things will get back to normal.” And they’re right.

The difficulty of these resolutions, I think, is that they usually are about us trying to be or become people different than who we are. They’re about doing things we really don’t want to do but have come to believe we ought to do. It’s hardly a surprise most of these plans and good intentions quickly crash and burn.

Most of the health issues these resolutions try to address are due to our modern lifestyles (sitting at a desk rather than working out in the fields) and/or compensating behaviors for other problems. In other words, we eat, smoke, drink, etc to deal with boredom, anxiety, depression or other emotional conditions. Trying to change the behavior without dealing with the underlying cause is, as we all know, nearly impossible.

I do think, however, that making intentions and plans for ourselves can be a good thing. Rather than trying to do things we really don’t want to do though, I think better and more realistic resolutions are to do things we actually like doing or want to try doing.

Unfortunately, many of us still carry around a kind of Puritanical view of life—one which religion often reinforces. We have voices in our heads constantly telling us that we ought to be doing or not doing one thing or another. Then add the real voices of our family, boss, and our doctor—no wonder we want to drown in a bag of potato chips or M&Ms!

Life is not a game or a contest, though. There aren’t rules to follow and points awarded for following them. Nor is life preparation or training for something else. Our lives are infinitely valuable and worthwhile in and of themselves, right here and now.

So in thinking about “2011 Resolutions,” rather than asking what I need to change about myself, I could instead ask what more do I want to do or become. In talking about New Year’s resolutions (and why he doesn’t make them), Deepak Chopra makes the unprofound yet absolutely true observation that what most people want is to be happy.

Of course! And why not? Again: what are we waiting for? There is nothing wrong with doing things for the simple reason that they make us happy. And so there might be our first resolution: I’m going to do more things that make me happy, and for no other reason than that.

This raises the problem that we often don’t know what makes us happy; or that we’ve forgotten what used to make us happy. One simple place to start in figuring this out is with childhood memories. What did you enjoy doing when you were 8 or 10? Very likely there is some related adult activity that would give you as much or more enjoyment today.

Adulthood should be about expanding our horizons so we should also wonder about things we’ve never done but perhaps might enjoy. Here there is almost no limit. And in a city like ours there are countless opportunities to take a class or otherwise try some new activity.

Adulthood is also about becoming less self-centered and more involved in relationships. Many of our interests are made more enjoyable by doing them with others. Like to read? Join a book group. Like sports but the joints aren’t cooperating like they used to? Coach in a youth league. Enjoy some field like history, science or art? Share your enthusiasm by volunteering as a docent or guide. And don’t forget the value of just helping someone in need. Again, there is no end to the human service organizations needing volunteers to help in their work.

Sadly, the enthusiasm and curiosity most of us have as children seem to get lost somewhere along our journey into adulthood. It’s no wonder that as we feel more and more burdened by duties and responsibilities, and then begin to experience the physical challenges of adulthood, we try to find simple pleasures to compensate. Unfortunately many of these are self-destructive and really don’t make us very happy anyway. No amount of TV watching or calories can really do the trick.

What would you like to do—really? Is there some itch in you that needs scratching? Maybe it’s as simple as committing to reading a book an hour each day (okay, half-an-hour). Or maybe you really want to learn to play the violin, or help someone else learn to play the violin.

In any case, rather than resolving to deny yourself something, why not resolve to give yourself something? Rather than resolving to constrain yourself in some way, why not resolve to expand who you are in some new or renewed direction? Rather than committing yourself to some drudgery, how about committing to something enriching, exciting, or perhaps even a little scary?

How about resolving to start doing something, regularly, that makes you happy? What could possibly be bad about that? And who knows, it might even help you forget those potato chips and M&Ms waiting in the cupboard.

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