Happy New Year! During this first month of the new year we will be looking ahead and reflecting on the theme of vision and possibility. According to the Soul Matters staff writers who pull together and distribute a lot of our theme material each month,

“Of all our topics…possibility is arguably most central to our faith. It has distinguished Unitarian Universalism from the start. Historically, when others saw depravity and sin at the core of human identity, we saw potential… When many were preaching that this world was fallen, and we should look instead to the hope of an afterlife, we found ourselves falling in love with the possibility of heaven on earth.

Those are admittedly lofty ideals, but it’s true that far from giving up on humankind as inherently depraved and in need of salvation, our Unitarian ancestors in particular believed in the possibility of our continuous and even inevitable improvement.

January is, of course, a time when many of us are thinking about improvement, self-improvement in particular. The old year has passed and we are taking stock of our lives and making plans for the year ahead. And for some of us, that includes making resolutions.

I make resolutions almost every year. This year, I’ve resolved to try to read 52 books and do a plank every day to strengthen my core muscles. So far, 5 days in, I’m on course for success! My 6th grader has a list of her own that includes things like eating more healthy foods, reading more, becoming stronger, improving her dance competition scores, and learning to write better with her non-dominant hand. My wife is among those who refuses to make resolutions, and we are resolved to respect that. Losing weight, I know, is among the most popular resolutions that people tend to make, especially after having eaten so much good food between Thanksgiving and New Year Eve.

As Barbara Merritt has said, “January feels like an especially auspicious time to become the person I’ve always wanted to be.” But we’ll see how long it lasts. I don’t know about you, but I’ve always had trouble keeping my resolutions beyond the first few weeks, especially any resolutions I’ve made regarding exercise. Although I have learned over the years to narrow down my list to only 2 or 3 improvements. And maybe that will help. Time will tell.

I do appreciate very much what Merritt says about the almost puritanical nature of our resolution making, that, as she writes,

To be resolved includes being “relentless, self-willed, and obstinate.” To be resolved means “to set one’s jaw, to nail one’s colors to the mast, to burn one’s bridges, to stop at nothing.” It also means “to be rigid, inflexible, hell-bent, and like a bulldog. To take the law into one’s own hands.”

And I do wonder sometimes if that’s really the best way, the healthiest way, to approach a new year or self-improvement, in general.

And so this year, I’ve also begun to explore this idea, inspired by the desert fathers, of “seeking a word.”

The so-called “desert fathers” were monastics of the 4th century who left their old lives behind to live in the deserts of Egypt, Palestine, Arabia and Persia. Thomas Merton describes the times in which they lived and their motivations for removing themselves from society by saying that…

Society…was regarded by them as a shipwreck from which each single individual man had to swim for his life…These were men who believed that to let oneself drift along, passively accepting the tenets and values of what they knew as society, was purely and simply a disaster.

What they sought in the solitude of the desert was purity of heart, closeness with God, what we might now call spiritual growth. They developed a reputation for being wise and holy, and people would come to them for guidance, seeking a word. And the wise hermits would counsel people to give up gossip and argument, envy and pride, and to attend to the poor, to one’s love neighbor, to forgive one another. In other words, to improve themselves. But they didn’t give lectures. Or sermons. Instead, they would do this by giving the seekers a single word or a short phrase or piece of scripture upon which to meditate and reflect.

According to one famous saying,

A certain brother went to Abbot Moses…and asked him for a good word. And the elder said to him: Go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything. (XIII)

The seeker, in other words, would not leave the desert with a long list of “to-do’s,” but with encouragement simple to be, to sit quietly and reflect, with the understanding that what they sought would unfold. Or as Barbara Merritt says, “What we require will come to us. Effortlessly.” That is the difference, she might say, between religion and resolution.

From that ancient practice, a new practice has seemingly evolved, a practice that is sometimes called “One Word Resolutions.” And although I was not aware of this practice, perhaps you were. It seems to have grown in popularity in the last 5 to 10 years.

One website introduces the practice this way, saying:

Forget New Year’s Resolutions. Scrap that long list of goals you won’t remember a few weeks from now anyway! Choose just one word. One word you can focus on every day, all year long. One word that sums up who you want to be or how you want to live. It will take intentionality and commitment, but if you let it, your own word will shape not only your year, but also you. It will become the compass that directs your decisions and guides your steps. (oneword365.com)

In other words, this one word is not a constant reminder of what you should be doing, but of who you want to be, your “aspirational identity,” or “the best version of yourself.”

Tim Atkins, a Director of Religious Education at a UU congregation in Maryland and former UUA Board member, has been doing this one word practice for 5 years now and it he says it has changed his life. 

As a religious humanist [he says], I…find it somewhat comforting to have this solid rock for my year. It forces me to focus in on a value I want to live my life around, and meditate on the value throughout the year. It forces me to put my values into practice, something we could all do a little more.

Of course, I read this and was intrigued. And so this past week, I read the 1st of the 52 books I’ve resolved to read this year, a book called My One Word: Change Your Life with Just One Word by Mike Ashcraft and Rachel Olsen, which describes the practice in more depth.

I should say that Ashcraft is a pastor of an evangelical Christian church and Olsen is one of the members of that church, and this is a practice that many in their congregation participate in each year. And although their theology is not my own, I thought they made some very good points about why choosing one word could be a very effective spiritual practice for anyone of any faith or none.

 As Ashcraft and Olsen write,

When considering changes we want to make, the tendency is to think in terms of specific behaviors. Typically, we give voice to our negative behaviors.

They give examples such as: “I need to stop running late” or “I need to stop overeating” or “I need to stop gaining weight.” You can see how they are all focused on the negative.

Then, to formulate a resolution, we usually phrase it as a positive behavior.

For example: “I’m going to manage my time better” or “I’m going to eat healthier and lose weight.”

This [they write] is regret-based decision making. Regret can be a powerful motivator. Extremely powerful at times, depending on the severity of the consequences we’ve faced. But it’s not always the best source of vision. We want to move forward with vision, not regret.

Instead of focusing on regrets and specific behaviors [says Ashcraft] I want you to spend time with the question, Who do I really want to be? Or rather, How do I really want to be?

Do you want to get along better with your peers, your family, your boss, or your employees? What kind of a person would get along with them? What characteristics would that person display?

Do you want to be more disciplined about how you live your life physically, spiritually, or financially? What kind of a person would live a disciplined life? Describe that person. What drives them? … Don’t just think about behaviors, think character and characteristics.

In that spirit, I’d like to offer you a few moments to sit quietly and reflect, if you choose, on this question: What kind of person do you want to become?

 At the congregation that Ashcraft serves, they spend a whole week or so reflecting on this question. He emphasizes that this is about character development rather than behavior modification. I would add that it’s about spiritual growth, which is one of our UU Principles, or about what some of our Unitarian ancestors used to call “self-culture.”

Once you’ve had some time to reflect deeply on what kind of a person you want to become, Ashcraft and Olsen suggest making a list of that person’s characteristics, traits and motives. This is a brainstorming exercise you can try at home. List words – nouns, adjectives, adverbs, verbs – “doing” verbs and “being” verbs. List them all.

And then, once you have them all listed, eliminate all but about 10.

For the 10 words that remain, they suggest writing a brief description of what each word means to you. Look each one up in the dictionary, in the thesaurus. Really dive deep. And after you’ve taken time to mull over these words, choose the one that most resonates for you.

I’ve started to do this. I’ve started to reflect on how I want to be in the world in the coming year and to make a list of those characteristics. And I’ve started to narrow that list down. They recommend not choosing the first word that jumps out at you, so I’ve been resisting that urge. And let me tell you, the narrowing down is challenging. Among my 11 or so words at this stage (because I haven’t yet been able to narrow it down to 10!) are:

simplify…organize…strong…fit…breathe…trust…grateful…

It is tempting to choose two or three words, but as Ashcraft and Olsen say,

…If you need more patience and more kindness and more love and more discipline in your life, but you pick LOVE and just become more loving this year – is that not a tremendous gain? Is that not success?

It is better to do something about one thing than nothing about everything.

 I’m going to try to heed their advice and choose my one word in the coming week. And that’s where they promise it will get really interesting. For once you’ve chosen a word, the task is figuring out how “to keep your word in front of you daily.” As they say,

Take your eyes off the mistakes, the regrets, the failures – the gap between where you are and where you want to be…focus on your one word.

Some of their suggestions for how to do that include:

• Writing your word on a notecard and taping it to your dashboard
• Typing it as your screen saver
• Stamping it on jewelry
• Adding it to your twitter bio
• Putting in on a sticky note on your bathroom mirror
• Adding it as a repeating all-day event on your iphone calendar
• Finding a theme song for it
• Making it into a t-shirt or key chain
• Or a stepping stone for your garden
• Or even stenciling it on the wall of your living room, knowing that you’ll paint it over at the end of the year and maybe choose a new word

The point is to keep that one word at the forefront of your attention every day for the rest of the coming year. Focus on it and reflect on it in depth. “Consider how your word might apply to your work life, your home life, your family life, your hobbies, your friendships, your dreams, your health, your finances, your reputation, your faith.”

Ashcraft strongly suggests a journaling practice: “Challenge yourself to write a couple of sentences daily or weekly on your experience or progress with your word.”

In his church, he says people talk about their words each week during fellowship hour. “Hey, how are you doing with your word?” I could imagine people getting together over coffee or potluck dinners once every couple of weeks to check in.

What do you think? Would you like to join me in choosing a word?

Would you like to join me in envisioning the possibilities for your own life?

Who do you want to become in 2020? What kind of a person do you want to be?

Do you want to be more kind? More courageous? More generous? More resilient? More fierce?

Perhaps, to paraphrase the desert fathers, if you sit with your word, your word will teach you everything.

So may it be. Amen. And blessed be.

Reverend Wendy Bell
Interim Minister | + posts

Wendy Bell was appointed Interim Minister of First Parish of Watertown in August of 2019, and will serve a two year term while we are in search for a new settled minister.