Resolution in the Abstract

I am not qualified to write this article.  I will freely admit that up front, lest anyone accuse me of presenting a better picture of myself than what is found in reality.  But truth is truth and the truth is unavoidable.

We are now more than two months into 2014.  I’m sure that many of us carried on the tradition of selecting a resolution for the New Year.  How is that holding up with you?

If you are anything like me, that resolution to improve your life fell by the wayside rather rapidly.  In my spiritual life, I can recount several times this has been the case.

I’ve left the confessional with the words of the Act of Contrition echoing in my mind: “And I firmly RESOLVE with the Help of Your grace to sin no more…”  And yet time after time I return to that dark corner of my Church and confess those same sins again.

I know what I’m supposed to do.  I know who I’m supposed to be.  And yet for the life of my resolutions dwindle to dust.

Why is that?

Because resolution is an abstract thing.  It is an act of the mind, a concept of behavior we would like to have or an image of the person we would like to be.  Positive mental imaging is important to achieving any goal, but the image is not the reality.

We are very good at imagining, when we want to.  Even those of us to claim not have an imagination could probably witness to how sometimes our impure thoughts tempt us with high-definition clarity.

Imagining ourselves as holier, kinder, wiser, and more generous is not a difficult thing.  In fact, sometimes we imagine this so much that we mistake it for the reality.

We’ve all met people who are not as funny as they think they are or not as smart as they believe themselves to be.  Maybe we’ve not only met them, maybe we are them.  Maybe our pride has created a mental mirage of heroism that only the cold hard reality of sin and failure can break through.

What are we to do?

The reason why so many of our resolutions fail is BECAUSE they are abstract.  Sin is not just a state of mind, it is an action.  And like any action it requires muscles to perform.  Anyone who is an athlete knows that certain skills aren’t attainable overnight.

I used to be a gymnast (granted I was a terrible one).  One of the things they emphasized was that the skills we needed to learn — whether the splits, giants, flairs, back handsprings, or giants — were going to take a lot of practice before we even got close to competency.

Notice they didn’t tell us that it would take a lot of positive imagining or a lot of thought and firm resolution.  It was going to take practice.

This would sometimes require us to work on the actual equipment, like the pommel horse.  But often we would have to work smaller, less fancy equipment, like the “mushrooms” (which were padded giant cable spools that we used to practice doing circles on before the pommel horse).  Like Daniel-san working with Mr. Miyagi, we would work long and hard on these activities before we could attempt any of the higher skill sets.

It was monotonous.  It was boring.  It was invaluable.

Why?  Because that activity was concrete, not abstract.  I can think about doing splits all the time, but unless I put time on the splits machine (a device as medievally imagined as it sounds), I would not develop the skill.  I needed to train my muscles.

Yes, this required mental resolution, but it was less than nothing without the action to back it up.  And this requires an act of the will in the concrete moment.   When standing before a particular callisthenic, I have to choose right here and right now to continue or to quit.  And that choice will either strengthen the muscles or weaken them.

That is why resolution in the abstract does not work.  Thoughts fly in and out of our minds like quick commercial breaks: they hold our attention for a moment, but are quickly replaced by some other distraction.  But muscle memory is reflexive.  If you build the muscle and make it strong, you will be prepared against the distractions of the world.

Which brings us to Lent.  We are now entering the season of resolutions and penance.  This is the time when the Church asks us to join together in mortification and sacrifice.

I have often been asked in class why we have to give up meat on Fridays or what the purpose is of fasting.  And while there are several good answers to this question, I will focus on this one: the mortifications are concrete.

In that moment when I greatly desire to have a burger on that Lenten Friday, I have to make a choice.  That choice is act of the will that either gives into my hungers or asserts myself over my wants.  In that moment either I control my desires or my desires control me.  It may not be a life-changing choice, but it is a real choice.

This is true of the big things as well.  I can desire to be a kinder person, but it doesn’t become real until I pay that compliment that I don’t feel like giving.  I may want to be a more chaste person, but that doesn’t become real until actively choose not to look at a particular person with lust.  I may want to be a more generous person, but that isn’t who I will be until I give that extra dollar that I’ve been saving.

Action makes resolution real.

That is the reason that Christ went to the cross.  Pope Benedict XVI wrote that Jesus had to die the way He did so that we could never doubt the love of God.

Jesus spoke often about loving our enemies.  But that resolution needed action.  It’s a nice idea to forgive others when they hurt you.  It is much more to concretely do it as they drive iron spikes through your hands and feet.  Jesus had to show us that as He became Incarnate in flesh, our good will must be incarnate in concrete actions.

And at the moment we perform a concrete act of love or faith or sacrifice as we called upon to do this Lenten season, the resolution can go from abstract to concrete.  And though the sacrifice might be small, it is an exercise of the muscle of the will.  And when we exercise that muscle, it becomes stronger.

When I get into the habit of denying myself, I can now make real what I only imagine.

Copyright 2014 W.L. Grayson

W.L. Grayson

W.L. Grayson

I am a devoutly Catholic theology teacher who loves a popular culture that often, quite frankly, hates me. I grew up absorbing every movie, TV show, comic book, science fiction novel, etc. I could find. As of today I’ve watched over 2100 movies and tv shows. They take up a huge part of my life. I don’t know that this is a good thing, but it has given me a common vocabulary to draw from in order to illustrate whatever theological point I make in class. I’ve used American Pie the song to explain the Book of Revelation (I’ll post on this some time later) and American Pie the movie to help explain Eucharist (don’t ask). The point is that the popular culture is popular for a reason. It is woven into the fabric of our lives and imaginations, for good or ill. In this blog I will attempt to bring together the things of heaven with the things of earth. Of course this goal may be too lofty for someone like me.

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