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On resolutions

I’m a fairly regular runner. I started running when I was on the field hockey team in high school, adopted it as a solo exercise habit while in college, and barring a hiatus or two for pregnancies, sciatica, and cancer treatment, I’ve been running ever since.

I brought my running clothes, warm ones for cold weather, to my parents’ house when we visited over the holidays. It has been warmer than usual in the Northeast and as I got dressed for a pre-cookie-binge run, I thought to myself, “I should wear lighter layers, leave off the gloves, I know from experience that after about ten minutes I’m going to be too warm.” I stepped outside to check the temperature and a much louder voice in my head said, “It feels COLD!! Wear everything!!” So off I went in all of my layers and gloves and hat. And within ten minutes, as predicted, I was boiling hot. Boiling hot and wondering, why didn’t I listen to my own wisdom?

I’m not a teenager with an underdeveloped frontal cortex. I’m an adult who should have full command of my executive function, my ability to consider potential positive and negative consequences and make decisions accordingly. As the child of an educator who specializes in thinking constructs, I was schooled on effective problem solving at the dinner table. As a matter of fact I write about and teach critical thinking myself. So you would think that I would be pretty good, by now, at making choices based on a thoughtful, educated prediction of the future outcome.

Yet there I was, taken over by the sensation of the moment, the cold. It didn’t matter how many hundreds of times I’ve warmed up ten minutes into a run. Somehow the what-I-feel-now voice convinced me that this time it could be different, that my past experience could be meaningless. Or perhaps it was just so loud that it drowned out my wise self-advising. Either way, I ended up with the consequence I had intended to avoid.

I’m thinking about this especially now as January 1 comes closer and many of us, deliberately or haphazardly, resolve to change and improve the way we live. We’re going to eat better food and less of it. We’re going to exercise more, sleep more, drink more water, drink less alcohol. We’re going to give up relating to others in unproductive ways and repair our relationships. We’re going to address our dissatisfaction at work, get to the dentist, pay our bills on time, read more, watch less TV, take a break from Facebook. More often than not the motivation for our resolutions comes from past experience. We’ve been around the block and we know the consequences when we eat too much, when we contribute to dysfunction in our relationships, when we pay bills late, when we overdose on social media. The consequences aren’t good. With forethought, we see how our resolutions can help us avoid these consequences and improve our lives.

But so often the what-I-feel-now voice takes over. “I’m starved, let’s eat whatever we can find.” “I’m tired, forget the 6 am run.” “I’m stressed and Facebook/drinking/shopping will distract me.” The vision of the future benefits of change pales in comparison to instant gratification, and there go the resolutions. Six to eight weeks into the year we’ve veered off the path we envisioned for ourselves. We are reliving the negative consequences we predicted from our past experiences. We judge ourselves as weak or incompetent, having failed to sustain positive change. We may want to give up, and sometimes we do.

I have three thoughts about this state of affairs. I am going to share them, both to see what you think of them as well as to encourage myself to actually apply them. As I tell my children, talk is cheap.

One: I propose we try to conceive this “life path” of ours a little differently. I think looking at our day-to-day experiences as either “on” or “off” our intended path invites too much negative judgment. I prefer to think of each of us as always on his or her unique path – but not always able to predict the direction the path is going, which sometimes means we are confused or even shocked at where we find ourselves. When I am unable to stay committed to a plan I had devised, instead of feeling that I’ve gone off-roading, I could believe that I’ve reached an unexpected bend in the road. I may not like traveling the bend, but I’m still putting one foot in front of the other and moving ahead, and intend to stay receptive to the surprises in the path even as I do my best to honor my plans.

Two: I would like to revisit the custom of making resolutions on January 1. Is the nearly-darkest and nearly-coldest time of the year ideal for stepping up exercise and salad eating? Many people are inclined to eat more comfort foods and move less this time of year, which frankly makes sense considering habitual seasonal rhythms (if we can even recall what natural rhythms are, as we’ve managed to set up a world where we can ignore the cycles of light and dark and weather and do what we want when we want). I believe that January 1 is an arbitrary time to make resolutions based on it happening to be the first day of the calendar year, and that it isn’t the best time for resolutions for every person. Think about yourself and your experiences. If January 1 works for you as a time to examine and make changes, go for it. But if you find that your efforts are habitually short-lived and lead to frustration, consider making a different date, anytime during the year that works best for you, your resolution time.

Three: We need to accept where we are on the path. Recognize, and then set aside, the judgment that makes you feel that you’ve failed when you haven’t lived up to an expectation. Understand that within your unique set of circumstances you are doing the best that you can. Especially if you are in crisis, whatever you can manage to do in a day is enough.

It’s been said many times before, but it’s worth saying again: You are enough.

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