At the beginning of the year, we’re inundated with admonitions to set goals, make resolutions, and in short plan to be a better us in 365 days. I haven’t been tempted to make any public resolutions, although I’ve had a couple of “I’d like to do X this year” thoughts. The truth is, I’m right in the middle of an epiphany about goals and disciplines and how best to grow and challenge myself, and I’m not sure what I think about New Year resolutions at the moment.
I had an “aha” moment a few weeks ago while while I was listening to a Circe podcast about Flannery O’Connor and a new biography The Terrible Speed of Mercy. On the face of it, that doesn’t seem likely to give any insights into resolutions or goals. The author and interviewer were talking about the difference between O’Connor’s mysteries and shocking scenarios and the 8-steps-to-a-better-you books found in most Christian bookstores. You’re unlikely to find O’Connor in said bookstores, but she’s probably just who the 8-steppers ought to read. (Seriously, it’s a great podcast, and it encouraged me to dig out my O’Connor and add it to the to-read pile and the biography to my wish list.)
Honestly, the 8-steps approach appeals to me. Just give me a list of steps to take, a goal to achieve, and get out of my way. But the 8-steps/mystery-revelation-grace juxtaposition got me thinking about how I approach challenges and difficulties and whether my tactics are ultimately beneficial.
Over the last year, I’ve become a little disillusioned with goals. For two-plus years, I published a blog post every day. While this isn’t really a huge accomplishment, it was something of an effort. I’m not sorry I did it, but toward the end I realized I was doing more posting and less writing. Actually, I think the final straw to daily blogging was my series on the Persecuted Church during Lent. Writing about violence, oppression, and death of innocents every day for six weeks tends to bring a blogger down. So I set aside the “post daily” goal for a “I will do my best to write daily” goal. Protip: vague goals aren’t much better than no goal at all.
But I’d lost the joy of writing, and I’m not sure I could have told you why I had a blog if you asked me then. I needed the break. The goal had become a task master rather than an aid. I find this is true in every area of my life where I seek to develop discipline, be it healthy behaviors or parenting or spiritual habits or homeschooling. I home in on the mechanics of goal keeping – the rules and procedures – and I forget that the purpose of having a goal is not simply to check something off a list or to have random acquaintances congratulate me on my success. I set goals (I ought to set goals) so that I can grow and change and become a better me.
The goal of writing every day had become more important to me than being a better writer. But without the goal, I kinda fizzled. Since breaking the chain eight months ago, I’ve only posted sixty-five times and only three times in December. So I need a goal; I just need a goal that’s not the boss of me.
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And that’s where I am. I said I was in the middle of an epiphany. I don’t know what the final illuminated conclusion will be. These are some of the thoughts rolling around in my head and sending out sparks:
I must be careful about goals. They are necessary, but I tend to focus on accomplishing my goal at the expense of all else. And, if it looks like I’m not going to meet that goal, I tend to ditch the whole thing. “Since I already broke the write-every-day chain, it doesn’t matter if I write today.”
I require structure and routine. If I don’t set aside (and protect) time to write or read or exercise or whatever, it won’t happen. But my life as homeschool mom also means I need to be flexible. Trying to force a set schedule on a day that’s gone off the rails is a train wreck in the making. This is a particular problem when the goal itself is to do something daily. “I will do X arbitrary thing regardless of the pain it causes everyone” is not a good way to have a happy family.
I need to acknowledge that not every good think I want to do or become is something I need to work on right now. Life has seasons. Currently, my life is focused on educating my children, helping through their struggles, and preparing them to take on life. There are many things I hope to do with my life, to learn and see and become. But many of those will have to wait, and some of those will never come to fruition. Nobody gets all the good things. Everything is a trade-off, but it is a good trade.
I need goals, but I need grace. I need structure, but I need flexibility. I need to pursue big things, and I need to accept that many big things aren’t for me in this season. I need to be okay with paradox.
I’ve been doing yoga for the past few months, and yogis use is the term “practice” to talk about doing yoga. I like that. It gives room for improvement and room for failure — and more importantly picking oneself up from failure. Goals are important, but thinking of them as goals is becoming less helpful to me. I want to develop disciplines and habits and practices. I don’t want to write X days in a row for X time period, I want to be a writer. I don’t want to exercise or eat healthily for a certain time frame, I want to be strong and healthy and able to embrace life with energy. (BTW, if that’s your goal/discipline/hope and you need some help to get started, check out my sister’s webpage.) I need to stop worrying so much about getting “there”, wherever there may be, and pay attention to this moment, this task, this opportunity.
Today is the Feast of the Epiphany, the day the Church celebrates the magi visiting the Holy Family. Much of the art about the magi features them on their journey. They brought with them extravagant gifts and horrific danger. They left for a far off country and may have never known the rest of the story after they returned home. Even if they lived until Jesus began his ministry, is it likely they would have heard about him? But they took the journey regardless. The problem with our cultural focus on goals – with my focus on goals – is that it needs a wrapped-up story, a “happily ever after.” But the voyage of life doesn’t work like that. If the current goal is the top of the next ridge, we know there will be another path down into a valley and up another hill after that. Making those “goals” our life’s purpose leads to despair. If I want to be okay with the paradox, I must embrace the journey.