So, in case you didn’t know, it’s a new year. Of course, calendars and such aside, it’s impossible not to know given that nearly everything around us the past few weeks has been subjecting us to some type of “review” of our year. There’s Facebook, which chose my photo of a stack of graded essays (which, ironically, felt somewhat accurate) as the feature photo of my year, not to mention a Google+ slideshow I got in an e-mail, which completely freaked me out until I realized that they were pulling photos from my travel blog on BlogSpot and had not actually invaded my computer. And then there are all those resolutions friends post on Facebook, articles about people making resolutions, and articles about all the things people tend to make resolutions about, like losing weight or having more meaningful conversations. Actually, scratch the latter one–they’re all just about losing weight.
We are a culture of self-improvement, and while people have been making resolutions and trying to improve themselves and society for ages, never has achieving those resolutions seemed more possible. After all, we now have an infinite number of resources available online, and all the latest research on growth mindset, behavioral patterns, and neuroplasticity gives scientific support to the notion that we are all capable of being better versions of ourselves vs. the old stick-in-the-mud notion that people can’t and don’t change.
On the one hand, this is very exciting and positive. Who wouldn’t welcome the hope that something unpleasant, unattractive, or downright destructive in their life could be changed for the better? We like the idea that we have the power to change and control who we are and how we live. The notion is like catnip to me. In fact, I haven’t made any New Year’s resolutions for years because resolutions aren’t a once-a-year activity for me–they’re an ongoing part of a constant cycle I’m engaged in of reflecting on my life and thinking about what changes/improvements I want to make (which happens when I’m not getting sucked into marathon sessions with various television series on Netflix). There’s a down side to this improvement mentality, though, because if I have the power to change something and I don’t, that means I’ve failed. If it is possible to change, my inability to stop eating delicious snacks while watching too many hours of TV, for example, is completely my responsibility (or fault). Worse, my judgment of myself can lead to me judging others who seem to “fail” in some way or other.
Alain de Botton explores this tension quite nicely (and more eloquently) in this TED talk, which someone brought to my attention over the holidays:
While he focuses on job status and the notion of professional/economic success and failure, the principles apply in other areas of life as well. There are a number of interesting and thought-provoking insights in this talk (including the value of the literature of Tragedy) but what stood out to me was his acknowledgment that there are factors at work in our lives that are utterly beyond our control–that are random or haphazard “accidents.” This reminded me of Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, which I read recently and makes the case that people’s success is often the result not only of their ability and hard work, but also factors like when and where they were born, where they lived, who their grandparents were, etc. that were completely out of their control.
Do we have personal responsibility and volition in who we are and the kind of life we’re living? Yes. Are our personalities and lives also–sometimes significantly–affected, both positively and negatively, by things utterly beyond our control? Also yes. This becomes even more complex and nuanced if one is a Christian since there is the additional paradox/tension of believing that we are created by an omniscient and omnipotent God who is actively at work in our lives with intention and purpose, while also believing that God has given us free will.
While there is the part of me that loves the idea that I have complete control over who I am and over my life, the part of me that finds this very stressful and burdensome loves these reminders that I do not. And if that’s true of me, that’s also true of others, thus ameliorating my impulse to judge. Also recently (all these converging resources a fortuitous coincidence or result of my own actions?), I came across this quote, which is attributed to the Hellenistic Jewish philosopher Philo: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is carrying a great burden.” As knowable as the world might seem in this information era, there is still a great deal that is a mystery to us. Certainly that is true when it comes to other people, and very often even true when it comes to ourselves.