I have never believed in New Year’s resolutions. What’s the point? If one possesses self-rule, they aren’t necessary. If one doesn’t, then they are painful reminders of the weakness of one’s flesh. By the nature of the thing, it’s the latter kind — those lacking in self-rule — who make the most vehement resolutions every December 31st, and who break them soonest thereafter. It’s a seasonal comedy: the human animal, chasing its tail.
Those wishing to change are looking in the wrong direction when they make lists and resolutions. It isn’t what they do that must change: it’s who they are. Despite the lessons taught by Law and Order and other crime shows, character rather than the stress of the situation drives judgments and actions.
An honest man will never steal. A disciplined man will rarely overindulge. But who will trust a lifelong thief who vows, on December 31, never to steal again, or an 800-pound behemoth who resolves never to touch another spoonful of ice cream?
Building character is a lifelong proposition, not a vow of a moment. That’s the fallacy built into the resolutions, and the reason they almost always fail. The desire for immediate transformation, natural in a consumer setting, becomes self-defeating in the realm of morality and character. The latter look to the long haul — to the end of life, in a sense, and to one’s final accounting to oneself.
Is it possible to improve one’s character radically, overnight? Instant transformation is possible but exceedingly rare: the usual term for it is “conversion,” of which St. Paul is the most famous example. He began the day as Saul of Tarsus, persecutor of Christians, and ended it as Paul, saint, martyr, and proselytizer for Christianity.
William James believed that only a specific kind of personality — one divided against itself — was prone to such dramatic reversals. Certain it is that conversion, which usually manifests itself in the form of an overwhelmingly emotional moment, is less instantaneous than one might think.
The convert undergoes a shattering experience that must be made intelligible. The process of understanding that experience can take years, as was the case with St. Paul. A.N. Wilson writes: “The revelation or apocalypse came upon Paul instantaneously, but we discern from his autobiographical reflexions that it took him at least three years for its implications to sink in; three years before he turned back to meet Peter and James in Jerusalem.”
Certain it is, too, that the process of conversion, of becoming a new person, is horribly painful — the spiritual equivalent of breaking and re-setting every bone in the body. Or even better: of dying while still alive. That is why Christians who undergo this experience (a small subset of those who claim it) feel they have been “born again.”
But conversion is not uniquely a Christian experience. The Buddha’s abrupt enlightenment under the bodhi tree resembles the vision that blinded St. Paul on the road to Damascus. On occasion the conversion isn’t religious at all: James mentions the case of alcoholics who undergo a Pauline moment of self-revulsion and self-revelation, and emerge transformed. Also according to James, neither religious nor secular conversions are guaranteed permanence. Some portion of the born again and newly sober are reclaimed by the old divided self.
There is a science of temptation. The human brain, Jonathan Haidt explains, really is divided against itself: it has a powerful automatic capability, which looks to the short run and immediate satisfaction, and a weak consciously controlled module, which plans complex activities and looks to the long run.
Haidt’s metaphor is of a rider and an elephant. The conscious rider can advice, suggest, and engage in certain persuasive routines such as dwelling on the horrible consequences of impulsive bevahior; but the elephant will go where it wants to. The problem of the human condition is that we overvalue the strength and influence of the rider, then are appalled when the elephant has its way.
Our minds are loose confederations of parts, but we identify with and pay too much attention to one part: conscious verbal thinking. . . . Because we can see only one little corner of the mind’s vast operation, we are surprised when urges, wishes, and temptations emerge, seemingly from nowhere. We make pronouncements, vows, and resolutions, and then are surprised by our own powerlessness to carry them out. We sometimes fall into the illusion that we are fighting with our unconscious, our id, or our animal self. But really we are the whole thing. We are the rider, and we are the elephant.
A new year isn’t a moral boundary. Time alone, sad to say, can’t cure our weaknesses. If we wish to discover resolutions that are regularly fulfilled, we should look to the 12-step commitment recommended by Alcoholics Anonymous. The steps come in religious and semi-secular flavors, but more importantly they accept the problematic nature of human failure — the power of desire, the weakness of the will — and they embrace the whole length of a life, from the first attempt at reformation to the last living temptation.
That lifelong perspective, which is the span of the moral drama, together with support from the community, which provides moral wisdom and is the Greek chorus of the drama, gives the individual a chance to overcome self-destructive desires.