“Getting Away From Good Intentions” by Mark W. Harris
First Parish of Watertown – December 28, 2014
Call to Worship: adapted from Mark Belletini
May the year come to shelter our spirits, and chase away at least a bit of our fear.
May the year come to serve up sufficient balance beams when the tightropes we walk are stretched to their tightest.
May the year come to surprise us all with unexpected pleasures, and only healthy relinquishments.
May the year come to provide us all with enough strength to face sorrow and limit, and enough joy to lengthen our lives.
May the year come to help us unlearn any mean things in us,
and learn ever fresh ways to be of service and witness.
May the year to come provide us some present measure of the peace that we dream for all the hurting world.
As we sail into the new year, on the mast of this minute, and on the ship of this hour, Let us find clear vision, and deepest mercy in the sacred rhythms of the year.
New Year’s resolutions are often made up of our good intentions to “be better.” Every January we tell ourselves this is the year I am going to lose weight, or exercise regularly, or work less and see my friends more often. We each have these mental lists that become goals for the year. What is going to make me a healthier, better, or nicer person this time around? One good intention I have not abandoned, but never quite fulfilled is exercising more. For the last year or more I have been going to the Y at least once a week. Recently I have tried to ramp that up to twice a week with mixed results. It is a work in progress. My exercise regime consists of stationary biking, weightlifting, some times treadmill and occasionally rowing. The biking is my favorite, as my particular machine is a high tech bike from which I can choose a variety of virtual courses from easy to moderate to difficult, which stretch from Oceanside highways to mountain passes to forest pathways, up and down hills, around corners, and even via detours where the road is washed out. The virtual route unfolds before my eyes on a screen as I huff and puff through different gears from 1-30, over ascents that measure as much as 30% inclines to descending valleys of equal measure downward. I can watch average speed and number of calories burned. There are even encouragements in signs along the way, or at the bottom of the screen – “you are half way home, or the wisdom of such movie sages as Yoda – Do or do not. There is no try. As silly as that advice may seem, especially since it comes from a three foot tall green guru who trains Jedi knights, I am going to use it as a launching pad for my new year’s service.
Do or do not. There is no try. It is appropriate because so much of new year’s resolution are idle predictions about what we are going to try to do to make ourselves better. This is the year, we say, for exercise, because . . . I have not lost the weight . . . I am not getting any younger. But so often it is merely idle chatter. It is what we say we want to do, or are going to do, but somehow it never materializes. As much as we would like to be thinner, or stronger, we simply are not making the effort to make it happen. We all know “the road to hell is paved with . . . . good intentions“ It is hell because we never end up fulfilling what we say we intend to do, and thus we feel like failures. How might we look ahead differently so it isn’t just the idle words of good intentions? How can we actually clean the basement rather than saying we are going to do it for the fifth year in a row. Hardly anyone makes good on their new year’s resolutions. It is something like 90% that fall by the wayside. What if there were no try, only do?
I often see that our resolutions are acted upon initially, but then we can’t keep on doing them, and they peter out for many of us. While there are those who say they are going to do something, and then never do, I think the honest, dutiful types that UUs are, usually means we at least begin to fulfill the resolution in earnest. I have a number of examples of this in my own life. We all know that drinking more water is essential for good health – feeling full you won’t eat so much, it helps your skin, you maintain a good balance of fluids –digestion, circulation, etc. How I envy those people who walk around with water bottles everywhere. How to accomplish this? It is kind of like daily flossing. It is bad habits that we acquired early in life that we somehow have never managed to change. When I was a kid no one in my house had ever heard of flossing. We were saints if we brushed once a day. And drinking water? My father was the dehydration specialist –he drank copious cups of coffee and then sometime after five o’clock switched to copious glasses of alcohol. Those were his liquids, period. Without models for these behaviors, we have to develop different habits as we age and mature. Now Andrea packs a bottle of water in my lunch, and I have a glass with dinner. Two drinks of water a day doesn’t sound like much, but it sure beats more coffee or wine. Some day I might even get to three glasses of water. The more exercise, the more water I will drink. The fuller I will feel, the more calories I will burn. We may have a weight loss resolution brewing here. The slow erosion of realized resolutions occurs because we don’t or won’t maintain these new activities. We go in with the best of intentions, and burning desires, but we easily fall back into our old ways. We say, I have work to do, so I can’t go to the Y today. We find an excuse for dropping the new resolution. It is not merely that it cuts into our work day. It may also be I can’t make it over there so early in the day, as there is too much traffic, no place to park, or rush hour makes me insane. We conclude it is not worth the hassle, and ease back into our old habits, of work and work some more.
What happens after a month of doing the resolution? Why do we break down? If you are like me, those excuses show I am weak willed. Or perhaps I am unwilling to give up my simple pleasures. Take crackers. I wish you would. I love crackers, and the cheese they are wedded to is like ambrosia to me. But crackers do me in. How can I eat three meals a day, and then come home from a scintillating First Parish committee meeting, and not have crackers to relax? I unwind with crackers and cheese as a nighttime snack. I can’t just go to bed. I have to ruminate on the future of our community. But I need the will to embark on a new lifestyle. My new year’s resolution is to give up these fatty square salt machines. But then I go to the store, and I see the low fat variety. My salvation. I don’t have to give up crackers, I say. I can switch to one that is good for me, right? It is whole wheat fat and salt. So it is a doomed resolution. Soon I am buying boxes of low fat crackers, and then I am eating the whole box, and the next thing you know, I am buying my old favorites with extra salt and fat.
There are many foods that we classify as healthy or healthier because they have the low fat label, or perhaps they were once healthy, but are now loaded with sugar. Yogurt was once a plain white substance that contained no additives. Now it worse than ice cream. Sure I can pretend it is healthy, but once I have that coconut flavor with the chocolate bits mixed in, I may as well be eating ice cream.
What do New Year’s resolutions mean to us? We need to be reasonable and fair with ourselves. I could say I am going to exercise every day, but that is ludicrous. For me, one or two days is reasonable, and I am determined to do the two, but five is not something I’ll ever do. We tend to run to extremes of all or nothing, which is why Aristotle’s maxim of moderation in all things is a more accurate reflection of what we really can do. In I Corinthians 9, Paul writes about the athlete saying, “And everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown.” (9:25). As the reading suggests, this year she is not making resolutions or asking for some outside force to make everything better. Like me, Tarbox is a true Calvinist Unitarian who is always taking self-inventories. This year, she says, she will do more to contribute to solutions. She will not try and fail. She will do. Sometimes we become enslaved by these plans for ourselves that are never going to work out – too much exercise, too much dieting, too much cleaning. A more helpful approach would be for us to do what we can and will do. No more resolutions, but rather a dedicated determination to do what will be helpful and healthy, and a commitment to actually doing it. That is a new year we can live by.
You have all been given a piece of paper. I invite you to write down the resolution that you make frequently, but never seem to act upon. Then you are invited to burn that resolution in our New Year’s fire, because it will no longer merely be a good intention, because you are determined that this year you will act upon it. It is something you will do. You are invited to say this publicly, or it may place it on the fire in silence.
Closing Words – “Blessings at Year’s End” by Howard Thurman
I remember with gratitude the fruits of the labors of others, which I have shared as a part of the normal experience of daily living.
I remember the beautiful things that I have seen, heard, and felt – some as a result of seeking on my part, and many that came unheralded into my path, warming my heart and rejoicing my spirit.
I remember the new people I have met, from whom I have caught glimpses of the meaning of my own life and true character of human dignity.
I remember the dreams that haunted me during the year, keeping me mindful of goals and hopes which I did not realize but from which I drew inspiration to sustain my life and keep steady my purposes.
I remember the awareness of the spirit of God that sought me out in my aloneness and gave to me a sense of assurance that undercut my despair and confirmed my life with new courage and abiding hope.