Jewish Wisdom & The New Year's Resolution Trap
One of the interesting facets of the Diaspora Jewish experience is that we have the opportunity to experience two new years every 12 months. Every late summer or early fall we spend the month of Elul preparing for Rosh Hashanah, the “head” of the year. We begin the process of cheshbon hanefesh, the accounting of the soul, an examination of who we are and what our words, actions and intentions have brought forth this past year. The fruits of this examination are carried into our prayers on Rosh Hashanah when we traditionally ask that we be inscribed in the Book of Life for another year.
Now that the new secular year has arrived, many people subscribe to the Western tradition of making New Year’s Resolutions. We often set very high standards for ourselves. Most of the New Year’s resolutions we make are for things that are really hard to do. (If they weren’t hard, we would have done them already, right?) When we fail to meet these obligations, we typically feel bad about ourselves, sometimes coming to the conclusion that we can’t change. This negative message we tell ourselves reinforces the negative behaviors and the cycle continues. Just ask anyone who has tried to quit smoking, but failed, how they felt about themselves when they realized they didn’t meet their own expectations.
In this “second new year,” when we think about changing our lives for the better, I humbly offer a suggestion for avoiding the New Year’s resolution trap.
Think about making “commitments” instead of “resolutions.”
The New Year’s tradition has warped the meaning of “resolution” to emphasize some future better you that isn’t here yet. Instead, it’s worth a look inside of yourself to see what actions you could put into place this very moment to live up to the you that you already are. Does this feel fuzzy to think about? Is this a tall order? Simply thinking about our personal ethics and “walking our talk” is a great place to start.
One of the best places to look for Jewish wisdom on personal ethics is Pirke Avot, which is generally translated as “Ethics of the Fathers,” is a tractate from the Mishnah. Perhaps its most popular teaching is this series of questions attributed to Hillel:
If I am not for myself, who is for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when? (Pirke Avot 1:12)
These simple questions have an almost riddle-like quality. The reader is invited to ponder them and discern their meaning. To get the ball rolling, I will offer three ideas of how to apply these questions:
Self-Advocacy and Self-Care: Once we are adults, our well-being is ultimately dependent on each of us. This aspect of our lives is what allows us to do everything else. How can you commit to being more effective in looking out for yourself and taking care of yourself in 2017?
Caring for Others: We are commanded to love our neighbor as ourselves (Leviticus 19:18). It is literally a mitzvah. What commitments can you make this year to be more available to connect with your community and to help others?
Action: Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) teaches, “Whatever is in your power to do, do it with your might” (9:10). How can you commit to put more of your intentions, even small ones, into action in 2017?
Jewish wisdom has much to offer each of us as we work to make practical improvements to our lives. Good luck to each of you as you consider your commitments for 2017.
Note: A portion of this essay was previously published at TC Jewfolk.com.