January 10 2021

The Fragility of Resolutions

There are some verses from the bible, or from poetry perhaps, that strike us as being so penetrating and so true, that we remember them always. One such for me comes from St Paul, who wrote: “The good which I would, I do not; but the evil which I would not, that I do…” [Romans 7, 19]. The Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, put it: “I do have a past to break with, an accumulation of inertia, waste, wrong, foolishness, rot, junk…”

As someone else has reminded us, the bed in which we are born determines well nigh every major aspect of our lives, our views, our choices, our concerns.  To paraphrase Larkin: “They mess you up, your mum and dad. They may not mean to, but they do…” for “they were messed up in their turn…”

We do create ourselves to some extent, but the overall shape of our life is often an accident of being born in a particular society, at a particular period of time.

The New Year is ten days old today, and I wonder if some, or perhaps any, of the resolutions you might have made ten days ago are still intact? Too many clergymen/women of whom I’m aware seem to have turned their back upon making resolutions, causing me to think that there is no religious imperative behind them; which is a little surprising when we remember that the earliest impulse to Christianity was John the Baptist’s call for repentance.

Some clergy say that they are doing their best all the time anyway, others that they know they will never keep resolutions.     I suppose that is a realistic approach, rather like the old Anglican priest who used to say to his congregation on Ash Wednesday (when we traditionally confess our shortcomings), “And don’t tell be that you won’t do it again, because you will!”

Perhaps the church is relaxed about us coming forward to confess the same sins over and over again, and that it is when we start confessing to new ones that we ought to start to worry!

For an almost arbitrary date in the calendar, unattached to any religious or indeed secular significance, New Year seems to generate a disproportionate amount of enthusiasm, particularly among the Scots. Perhaps because the date appears to offer us an opportunity to start things over again, to begin afresh, that it’s so appealing. We believe we have free will, and can steer the direction of our lives, and New Year panders to that.

The failure of our resolutions, however, gives it the lie. If we were really free to choose what we do, how we think, how we behave, then why choose 1st January to change our habits? It must be because we recognise that we need all the significance and help we can muster if we are going to make the attempt.

It feel it is with us as it is for the person who has many ideas for home improvements, but lacks the means to carry them out, no time or money or the skill for DIY. We can make good resolutions, but lack the means.

A contemporary author has written: “We are what we are, because we are who we are; and who we are is often not the result of choice on our part, but is the result of factors outside our control.”

It has always seemed to me that the great controversy surrounding Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species, is not that God did not create the world in 6 days, or that we are descended from primates, but that you need to be ruthless in order to survive. This is usually expressed as the survival of the fittest. But the fittest are not the morally fittest, the spiritually fittest or the ethically fittest: they are simply the fittest physically and in cunning, and they triumph by overcoming those weaker in these respects than themselves.

Saul Bellow describes the plight of poets in America. “The country takes terrific satisfaction in the poets’ testimony that the USA is too tough, too rugged, that American reality is overpowering. And to be a poet is a school thing, a skirt thing, a church thing. The weakness of the spiritual powers is proved in the childishness, madness, drunkenness and despair of these [writers]… So poets are loved, but loved because they just can’t make it here… If I were not such a corrupt, unfeeling creep, thief and vulture, I couldn’t get through this either.”

So really the Origin of Species militates against Christianity because it describes the triumph of brutality and cunning over gentleness. So it is no good saying, from tomorrow I will be more grateful, less irritable, give up smoking, eat less, take more exercise, unless we first of all understand why we don’t do these things already.

A chess player once asked a chess champion, “What is the best move in the world?” He was told, “There is no such thing as the best move.” Everyone has his or her own vocation. None of us can be replaced, nor can our life ever be repeated. So everyone’s task is unique, and only we have the opportunity to carry it out. There is no such thing as the best move, it all depends upon circumstance and personality.

Does free will really exist, and is there any point in making New Year’s resolutions? We understand now why they are often so hard to keep, because they are mostly not in our control; but the more we understand what it is that makes us who we are, the freer we will be.

Our understanding of our own condition, and that of others, can only make us more forgiving, and more kind.  Amen.

Sunday Service homilies from the Minister during coronavirus period