Each New Year’s Day celebration brings the requisite New Year’s resolutions. Our own personal histories, as well as statistical evidence, show that these resolutions have a very short shelf-life. Much like that bag of kale in the back of the vegetable drawer, our good intentions for a better and healthier New Year quickly “smell a bit off” and are thrown into the garbage even before the Christmas tree makes its way to the tree lawn.
Psychologists, physicians, and pretty much anyone with an opinion have a theory as to why these resolutions are so quickly jettisoned. I am neither a psychologist nor a physician, but I am among the “pretty much anyone with an opinion” crowd, so I have my own theory. New Year’s resolutions fail for the same reason that anything fails: the focus on me and my happiness.
Historians tell us that the roots of practicing New Year’s resolutions can be traced back to the celebrations of the Babylonians about 4,000 years ago. For the Babylonians and then the Romans, these promises were made to the gods - promises of sacrificial offerings and the like - and in return, the people expected the gods to reward them - bountiful harvests, victories in battle, and, in general, a good year for all.
Tending to the sacrificial rites and offerings to the gods didn’t make the people any thinner or keep them from smoking or spending too much time on social media, but they did place everyone within a circle of communal responsibility - responsibility first to the gods, but also to each other. Sure, one might be happier playing Donkey Kong than offering a harvest sacrifice. Still, the un-offered sacrifice could (and most probably would) have an adverse effect on the entire community.
People in such societies didn’t have the opportunity to come up with or to live out phrases like “follow your bliss” or “you can do anything you put your mind to” or “you deserve to be happy.” They were just trying to ensure they had enough to eat that year.
Somewhere along the line, the focus of New Year’s resolutions went from theocentric to egocentric. Whenever that occurred, we can be sure that it was somehow linked with the Enlightenment vision of progress and ideals like “the pursuit of happiness.”
One could claim that the ancients were just as egocentric as we moderns since they were resolving to do those things that would make them happy, but they just dressed up their egoism in religious practice. Fair enough, but the whole “splinter vs. plank in the eye” thing comes to mind. We don’t just want to survive; we want to thrive and believe we deserve to. We don’t just want to be here for the next New Year’s Day celebration, but we want to be “self-actualized” and “empowered” when that day comes.
The problem is that all of these goals are doomed to fail, and they are doomed to fail for one very important reason. We were not created with any of them as our ultimate goal. Saint Ignatius of Loyola tells us in his Spiritual Exercises that we were created to “praise, reverence, and serve God; and by that means to save our souls.” He then noted that this should keep us from directly praying for things like a long life, riches, or health - things that may or may not lead us to salvation.
Is this Ignatian vision common among most Catholics? Are we differently oriented than our non-Catholic peers, or are we simply in and of the culture?
My favorite Marian prayer is the Hail, Holy Queen, or Salve Regina. Not only does it contain the motto of my college alma mater (Vita, Dulcedo, Spes - Our Life, Our Sweetness, Our Hope; referring to the Blessed Mother), but it lets us know exactly who and where we are during this lifetime. “To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve. To thee do we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this valley of tears.” We are all “poor banished children of Eve,” and we are all exiled “in this valley of tears.”
Fittingly, the Church puts Mary front and center on New Year’s Day, so we are reminded of her role in Salvation History on a macro and micro level. Her “Fiat voluntas tua” (“Thy will be done”) not only foreshadows the words of Jesus in the Our Father but shows us what should be at the core of any New Year’s resolution.
Maybe New Year’s resolutions that focus on doing God’s will have a greater chance of success; maybe not, but we don’t know until we try. Either way, when we inevitably stumble, we can call upon Mary, our Mother of Mercy, with the assurance that she is more concerned that we try again to follow her Son in this valley of tears than she is with us feeling empowered in our pursuit of happiness.