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Thinking Resolutions Through

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12/29/2009

Socrates argued that the unexamined life was not worth living. So, in a world short on serious reflection, New Year's resolutions can lead to useful self-examination. But it is important that we think through our resolutions, or we can undermine their purpose.

Helpful resolutions must begin with an honest stock-taking. But facing failures, mistakes and weakness is painful, causing many resolution-makers to skip this essential step. This leads to resolutions that are doomed to fail, because they rest on self-deception, such as students who hate biology and chemistry resolving to be doctors or those who detest vegetables deciding to "eat right."

Resolutions can miss their mark because we resolve to improve where we are already good, while ignoring our weaknesses, such as a great salesman's determination to hone those skills further, while overlooking weaknesses at parenting or "husbanding."

Since we can change only the present and future, resolutions must focus there. But many instead overwhelm themselves with guilt about their past and give up as hopeless any chance of "making up for it" or addressing those problems. We cannot change the past, but we can apologize now, forgive now and begin to make past wrongs right now. Letting the past stop these acts today is simply making another mistake.

Other times, people become so focused on the past that they sacrifice their present and future in a futile effort to unmake the past or to avenge previous wrongs, real or imagined, that cannot be changed.

We sometimes resolve to fix everything about ourselves at once. Therefore, we soon don't even remember all our resolutions, much less put them into practice — a recipe for failure, leading to still more guilt feelings and discouragement from ever facing our issues, as any binge dieter can attest.

We resolve to control our emotions. However, we can only control what we do, not what we feel. Appropriate actions do often lead to appropriate feelings (the best way to begin feeling charitable is often to begin practicing charity), but trying to control the uncontrollable by sheer willpower is a setup for failure.

We resolve to always or never do things. But in areas that give us trouble, lapses are almost certain. That sets us up to quit as soon as we first falter, short-circuiting chances for success in areas that involve more substantial processes over time.

We resolve to just live for today. But "eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die" is often poor advice. Living more for today can be an antidote to sacrificing current happiness to invest everything in hopes of a better future, but what we do today has important impacts tomorrow. That is why, when we talk to our children about serious issues like drugs, sex, education, etc., we emphasize that they shouldn't just live for today.

We resolve to fix others and their attitudes toward us. But this is often futile, beyond creating resentment from those we are trying to "fix." The only persons we are sure we can improve are ourselves. We can become more likeable, but we can't make someone like us. We can resist giving offense, but not assure that no offense will be taken.

Similarly, we resolve to be more successful. But we only control our efforts, not the results. Further, failure to quickly achieve "success" resolutions, as opposed to resolutions to keep trying until we succeed, often leads people to give up completely.

If you plan to make New Year's resolutions for 2010, make sure one of them is to think them through, rather than letting them fool you into further mistakes. And remember that New Year's is not the only time when actions based on self-reflection can improve our lives — every day presents a new beginning, when past failures need not control the present or the future.

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