A New Year’s Revolution?
by Gavin Matthews
When I wrote this, the annual ritual of New Year Resolution-making was in full swing. By the time it is published in February, most of these will lie in tatters. Siddharth Singh mocked on Twitter: “Startup idea: a gym named Resolution that runs for the 1st month of the year, collects a subscription fee, then converts to a bar named Regret” (1) . According to a recent survey 60% of us make these commitments, of which only 8% are kept; the most popular of which include dieting, exercise, weight loss, budgeting, quitting or reducing smoking/alcohol consumption (2).
The underlying message is that most of us are dissatisfied with some aspect of our lives and behaviour, and mark our own report card with the proverbial “could do better”. Yet the evidence suggests that the most important changes are the hardest to convert from aspiration into reality.
2018 was a year of enormous personal change for two people I spoke to; more revolution than resolution in fact. Nathaniel is a politics and philosophy student in Scotland; who described his life as one of exploring questions of meaning by day, and pursuing pleasure – mostly in alcohol, by night. However, academic success, and personal hedonism led Nathaniel not to contentment but to despair. Change came when he began to explore questions of faith, both listening to a Christian speaker; but then exploring the New Testament. Today he describes his newfound Christian faith in terms of God changing his whole life. (read his story here)
Likewise, another University student we met in Dundee, had a parallel experience. He was a convinced atheist, and attended a campus debate between an atheist academic and a Christian. After a long search, and exploring many questions, he became a Christian last May. Now he writes: “I held that atheism and therefore nihilism was true, but saw the inconsistency of this with my own strong conscience and need for meaning. Christians seemed to have better answers as to where to find meaning and purpose than nihilism, scientism or atheism.” The changes which occurred were not mere resolutions of behaviour; but a revolution of the heart. (read his story here)
Alcoholics Anonymous’ 12-step recovery famously involves invoking a ‘Higher Power’ which seems to affirm that deep change requires an external force or inspiration. While Christianity is routinely snubbed by critics as a crutch for the weak, the truth is that our ‘Disneyfied’ culture has taught us to search within ourselves to release the inner prince or princess we were ever-destined to be: but this quest has produced despair in countless people. Many people have searched their souls but instead of finding their true-self, meaning and purpose; have become profoundly disillusioned.
For those two students, the power for change came from outside them, when their materialistic philosophical-nihilism crumbled and they found purpose. The atheist writer David Foster Wallace understands this when he describes the place “where you tap real meaning in life” as “worship”, and remarks: “There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship … is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, then you will never feel you have enough…Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you … Worship power—you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart—you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. And so on”(3).
The point Wallace makes is that the weight of our ‘worship’ must rest somewhere. It is what we worship which really governs the trajectory of our lives, not our well intentioned resolutions.. Mere aspirations prove to be powerless in the face of the power of worship, because finally our behaviour will always default to being an expression of what we value most. Thus the question we must all answer, if we are to gain the power to change, is this: ‘is the object of my worship worthy of it?’
In the ancient world, philosophers debated about whether the universe had a purpose, a meaning, an organising principle. They called it the “Logos”. The extravagant claim of the Christian faith is that this Logos turns out not to be an abstract proposition but a personal God, revealed in Jesus Christ. It was this discovery which those two students, and countless others in 2018 made, which unleashed a power in their lives that went far deeper than mere resolution. Vive la revolution.
- David Foster Wallace, This is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2009) p100-110.