It’s as if people think that the new year is somehow going to be “the one” in which they actualize their potential and fulfill their wildest dreams (or create a five-step plan to make that happen). It’s true that 2020 has been a wild ride, but how is the numerical change of “20” to “21” going to transform the world? I keep hearing folks say, “I can’t wait for 2020 to be over,” as if the mere page-turning of a calendar brings about a fresh, new world. If only…
Let me clarify: there’s nothing wrong with goals. In fact, without vision for the future, we will never achieve anything! But whether or not you jump on the annual bandwagon of New Year’s resolutions, we can all agree on one thing: the end of a year is a good time for introspection. I’m not here to suggest we avoid taking personal inventory—I’m here to suggest that we often take inventory of the wrong things.
We measure our success by how many pounds we lose. How many miles we can run. How many dollars we profit. How many followers we acquire. How many books we publish. How many contests we win.
What we lose sight of is the fact that each of these achievements requires only a limited scope of character traits. You don’t have to be generous to lose weight—you just have to be self-controlled. You don’t have to be humble to run a marathon—you just have to be diligent. You don’t have to be honest to exceed last year’s profits—you just have to be strategic. You don’t have to be genuine to gain followers—you just have to be interesting. You don’t have to be skilled to publish books—you just have to be resourceful.
Please consider these questions with me:
Are you really better off if you lose that weight by adopting an eating disorder?
Are you really better off if you train for that race at the expense of family time?
Are you really better off if you rake in the cash by doing some under-the-table deals?
Are you really better off if you sacrifice your honest opinions in order to reach a broader audience?
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: we are all characters. We all have a character arc. We all either grow or decline within the course of a year. And the beginning of a new year is a great time to ask ourselves which of these we did over the last year.
When we’re “in the thick of it,” it can be hard to see whether we’re getting better or getting worse. Challenges, trials, and setbacks all have a way of making us question whether we’re really getting anywhere at all. And for some of us, we are still in the thick of it by the turn of the new year. It’s not as if all of last year’s problems have dissolved because we’ve reached January. But we all fight multiple battles each year, and even if the outcome of one battle is still pending, we can still take stock of the smaller ones and ask ourselves how we’ve grown.
How has our perspective changed over the last year?
Have we become more cynical?
Have we developed a healthy skepticism?
Have we stepped outside our comfort zone or withdrawn into ourselves?
Have we become more grateful or more greedy?
These questions are definitely harder to answer than the ones about tangible goals. It’s harder to assess your character than your bankbook. It’s harder to assess your heart than the number on the scale. But one of these can be taken from you, while the other cannot. One of these will pervade the entirety of your life, while the other is confined to one aspect of your life.
So by all means, let’s set goals and try to accomplish them. Let’s celebrate the achievement of a resolution! But more importantly, let’s celebrate the ways in which our integrity, compassion, and discernment have grown—whether as a result of or in spite of our New Year’s resolutions.