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By PAT TRAVERS
As we celebrated New Year’s this week, many of us probably engaged in the tradition of making “New Year’s resolutions.”
These usually take the form of commitments to better ourselves or improve our performance in areas of our lives that we have identified as deficient.
For example (probably the most common one), a person who observes shortcomings in his or her physical fitness might resolve to embark on a structured exercise program, often including a detailed schedule of times and forms of exercise.
Similarly, one who observes that his or her home or office is in disarray might decide that the time has come for concerted cleanup and organization efforts, sometimes involving the latest filing or storage system.
Many of us engaged in ministry have undoubtedly bemoaned our inattention to our own spiritual growth, and have resolved to carve out of each day a consistent time for prayer, reflection and spiritual reading. And there are any number of other personal sins and shortcomings that have been recognized and responded to in recent days with affirmations of repentance and reparation.
Of course, the tradition of making these resolutions for the new year is, for many of us, almost exactly matched by the tradition of breaking them within a few days or weeks. The zeal of New Year’s is quickly overcome by the pressures of habit, inertia, laziness, apathy, or some combination of these, despite our best intentions and efforts.
Indeed, this nearly universal experience has made the New Year’s resolution tradition the object of widespread ridicule and skepticism. We might therefore ask ourselves why something that we might expect to be received with admiration and encouragement should instead be met with such disdain. I would like to suggest that this results from two factors that dominate our approach to New Year’s resolutions: its predominantly negative emphasis and its overestimation of our will power.
There is no room for doubt that recognition, repentance, and amendment of our sins, shortcomings, and failures are good and necessary for a happy, healthy life, whatever our religious or moral beliefs might be.
The problem is that this negative process is incomplete in and of itself. If we view the process of personal growth as consisting only of reactions to our shortcomings, we will be taking a very negative approach that will blind us to the possibilities for growth that are not necessarily linked to our weaknesses, but rather can lead us to appreciate our strengths. It is the very negative focus of the usual approach to New Year’s resolutions that so often renders them intimidating and unpleasant, and paves the way to ultimate failure. Will power alone will rarely prevail in the face of negativity and discouragement, especially if we view our efforts as basically making the best of a bad situation.
If, on the other hand, we also ask ourselves at the beginning of each year what opportunities might be opened up by our gifts, talents, and strengths that we have not fully appreciated, we will have a more complete and accurate vision of our possibilities for growth and also a higher level of energy and motivation to pursue those possibilities.
In Catholic spirituality, this contrast is reflected in new approaches to the traditional practice known as “examination of conscience.”
This has often been viewed exclusively as a process of cataloguing our sins and faults, and then systematically applying remedies that are intended to eliminate them one by one. More recently it has come to be seen more broadly as a reflection on a person’s whole relationship with God in its positive and its negative aspects, recognizing that ultimately it is God alone who gives us the wisdom and power necessary for human growth.
Perhaps this wholistic approach to the examination of conscience can offer all of us, whatever our faith might be, a happier and more successful approach to the new beginnings we hope to make at the beginning of this new year.
The Rev. Pat Travers is pastor of Holy Name Catholic Church.
Perspectives is a regular column sponsored and written by members of the Ketchikan Ministerial Association.