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  • Writer's pictureDoug Weiss


A familiar trope at this time of year is the new year’s resolution. The idea of freeing ourselves from habits we would rather not carry into the future is attractive but all too often, even as we promise this time will be different, we know that few resolutions survive the first sixty days. Psychologists say that it takes that long for a new habit to form. In my own experience it takes even longer when we are trying to give up a behavior that we have engaged in for a long time.

While the word itself, resolution, conveys a firm and unwavering commitment to an objective, when it comes to matters of the will, we are masters at self-deception. Temptation abounds—and we are well practiced at convincing ourselves that this once we can deviate from our promises. After all, the only one we hurt is us.

I believe that we have free will—that our actions and decisions are not ordained. The good news is that at any time we can choose how we wish to live our lives going forward. We need not be saddled with recrimination or plagued by guilt over a past which we cannot change. We can decide that today—the only time we truly possess—will be different. We know this but teaching ourselves a new way is an arduous path.

I am reminded of a story I read many years ago about a young acolyte who wished to become an adept in a sacred order. The young man entered into the disciplines of a monastic life and modeled himself on the old and wise ‘masters’ as he called them who had about them an air of solemn certainty. Several years into his self-imposed solitude and study, it became clear to the young man that he had not achieved any significant progress. He was restless and frequently wondered if he had made the right choice. In his darkest moments he became convinced that there was a secret known to the masters that he had failed to learn.

One day he came upon one of the most venerable of the masters in a stairwell. The stairs were narrow and so it was that he stood aside to let the older man pass, but impulsively he blurted out “master, a moment of your time.” The elder paused and kindly said, ‘what is it you wish to say?” Summoning his courage, the young man asked, “how do I become as you?’ Pausing for a moment, the master replied: “tonight when you go to bed, before you lay down, line up your sandals as perfectly as you can by the side of your pallet.”

Astonished at this unexpected response the young acolyte stammered “that’s it—that is all I need do—it cannot be that simple.” With a sigh, the old man looked into his eyes and said: “we must learn to master our will with the simplest of gestures. If you cannot do this one thing, night after night for the rest of your life, how can you do anything greater?”

The lesson here is clear. Resolutions are not effective because we, like the young man hope to arrive at the outcome we desire all at once. It takes a lifetime of disciplined commitment to the things we want to bring about. That is free will, the ability to make that commitment, and the ability to break it.

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