Howard Voss-Altman: I don’t make resolutions for the secular New Year. But I make them at the beginning of the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah. And as our new year is an internal, introspective view of the previous year, such resolutions are critical to my (or any Jew’s) spiritual life. These resolutions are referred to as teshuvah, the Hebrew word for “return.” In other words, our teshuvah is the return to our best selves – the self we ought to be.
Guy Nicholson: My own New Year’s practice is to make resolutions only if I’m truly motivated to keep them. I don’t like the self-inflicted guilt of failing at them, but I don’t know if that guilt is as strong as would come from a community of others.
Peter Stockland: How, then, do you challenge yourself to move beyond what you already know you can do? And why feel self-inflicted guilt at failing? As the old saying goes, our reach should exceed our grasp, or what’s a Heaven for?
Guy Nicholson: What I’m talking about is more than idealizing my abilities – it’s about setting priorities. I would love to look back on 2012 having accomplished A, B, C and D – but I know there are only 24 hours in a day, and it’s actually realistic for me to do B and D. Maybe all four are realistic, but at a cost I know I don’t want to pay.
Lorna Dueck: I’m chuckling now, Guy, because you are describing a practical transaction. One of the realities that happens with spiritualizing our goals as I’ve been talking about means we can be, to quote an old proverb, “so heavenly minded we are no earthly good.”
Peter Stockland: I think that is well said, Lorna, and I think at bottom is less about being heavenly minded, maybe more about human vanity, than actually being attentive to the best way we can serve God.
Guy Nicholson: Well now I’m chuckling, Lorna, because I’ve been described as too literal and practical for my own good. But I’m talking about specific, empirical objectives, like “Go to the gym three times a week” or “Spend more time with old friends.” There’s not really a time transaction involved with “Be a better person” or “Raise myself to a higher standard.”
Peter Stockland: But those last two phrases of yours aren’t resolutions, they’re fantasies. “Be a better person” by what? For what? “Raise myself to a higher standard” by what? For what? “Be a better person by working at a homeless shelter once a month because I am called to love my neighbour (charity).” That’s a resolution and, funnily enough, it has a specific time commitment.
Guy Nicholson: I’m just saying that, if your time is already well spent, adding too many new commitments can only happen through subtraction. I try to be realistic about this, lest next year’s resolution become “Stop making promises I can’t fulfill.” Perhaps you’re right that it isn’t challenging enough, though. Sleep when you’re dead, isn’t that the saying?
Back to the wider discussion – does everyone agree that religious fasting periods, such as those practised on Ramadan, Yom Kippur or Lent, fit the pattern we’ve been discussing? Or are these about something else, such as sacrifice?
Peter Stockland: I think they are the pattern we are discussing. Days of fasting and similar kinds of limitation are specific actions to make you stop what you normally do, take you out of your normal patterns of behaviour, and turn your attention away from the rest of the world and toward the heart. I never think of them as denial for the sake of denial, but denial for the sake of renewal.
Lorna Dueck: I agree – fasting is a gift that helps remind us to focus on God ahead of whatever need we are feeling in our own flesh or pysche.