I used to be pretty compulsive about New Year’s resolutions. However, after years of failing, I found myself this year unsure of what to do. I could just change the date on last year’s and call it a day. Instead, I started thinking about why I failed and why it mattered. Fortunately, there are so many articles at this time of year with answers. The most enlightening for me was a New York Times article by David DeSteno on the psychology of self-control.
At the heart of self-control is the ability to sacrifice some benefit now for something greater down the road. People who have this are far more likely to succeed. But what about those of us who don’t have that? Honestly, the times in my life when I did exercise self-control, I was miserable. Successful, but miserable. I loved the results – I was thin, I ran marathons – but I was also compulsive about what I ate and when. Everything I did was weighed against how it would affect my training the next day and the next week and the next year. If I go to a late movie, will I get up and run tomorrow? If I eat this donut, will I be able to shave five minutes off my time next January? At some point, there’s so much invested in the future that we miss the present.
Still, there is a real danger in a failure to sacrifice for future possibilities. One of the traps of poverty is that it creates a mindset focused on immediate survival at the cost of the ability to plan for the future. In our hyper-capitalist society, we’re plagued with short-term thinking. Executives are more concerned about stock prices and taking dividends and options before they get fired than hiring people or increasing wages for the long-term benefit of the company or the workers. Politicians sell out our future to try to win an election now.
As Christians, we’re supposed to be focused on eternal things, the longest of the long-term. We are to work toward our eschatological hopes for peace and justice, for union with all. But remember that eternity is not just forever into the future, but entwined with all time, meaning that eternity is forever now.
For spiritual development, the now is where it’s at. Worrying about the future or regretting the past isolates us from the present. It may drive us to success – always wondering what is next, what is the best thing we can be doing right now – but it costs us awareness of who we are in the moment, what we’re feeling as we feel it. Spiritually, we want to be present to ourselves and to others.
So are these two impulses always at loggerheads? Maybe not. It turns out self-control is almost impossible to develop. Each time we resist temptation, it makes us more likely to give in the next time, like a tectonic plate building pressure until it is released. In the process we harm ourselves; the stress actually ages us at a cellular level. Developing what DeSteno calls “the resumé virtues” will bring success, but probably also an early death.
We can, however, develop what DeSteno calls “the eulogy virtues,” social emotions like gratitude and compassion. These are virtues of presence. Right now, what am I thankful for? Right now, what is needed? Right now, who is hurting? These are also eternal virtues. They point us into an infinite future of relationship.
As a result, ironically, they allow us to sacrifice a present benefit for a later good. But don’t get too excited; this isn’t just a back door to self-control. These virtues also decenter us, so that our current sacrifice is not necessarily for a later good for us, but for others. You might not lose weight or stop smoking; you might die on a cross for the sake of another.
Jesus life was fraught from the beginning with expectations far more onerous than dropping the Trump 10. His people had waited for a savior, to rescue them from oppression after oppression. Here was this child named Yeshua, “our savior.” But he never practiced the resumé virtues. Instead, he practiced gratitude and compassion. He loved his people and gave his life for them. He calls us to do the same.