Keeping Our New Year’s Resolutions: Part 1

Whether or not we make New Year’s resolutions, the relative stillness at this time of the season fosters reflection. We may think we see clearly which of our habits or behaviors need to change, yet the only thing that seems to occur without much effort is our easy slide back into habitual patterns.

A few days before Christmas, my wife went online to enter her final grades. Having trouble logging in to the university portal, she asked me to take a look. She uses the portal daily, so no doubt she had the correct username and password. Initially I considered two possibilities, either the portal server was down or someone had hacked into her account and changed her password. There was no sign that the portal server was down, and I quickly realized that the odds that someone had hacked into her account were infinitesimally small. I realized that my mind had limited itself to considering two almost certainly incorrect causes for my wife’s problem; and literally within seconds, a new possibility popped into my mind: Had my wife accidentally turned on the cap lock key? Indeed, she had; she restored the cap lock to its default position and was able to enter the portal.

That same evening at dinner, my son asked me what I thought of inductive reasoning. “Funny you should ask.” I said to him. “Just today I was again reminded of how inductive reasoning can get us into trouble.” Inductive reasoning often fails us if we are certain we are itemizing all possibilities, when in truth, we are not. Using inductive reasoning in this matter, we try to solve the problem where it is not. In my wife’s case, initially I was trying to solve the problem by considering external causes. Given that I initially believed the cause was external, I almost advised her to call the university’s help desk. Yet, because I had no real attachment to the incorrect causes to which I had attributed the problem, I was able to drop my story quickly and to be open to having the real cause revealed to me.

The real cause, the real problem, was right in front of my eyes. This whole “computer problem” was over in mere minutes, but it illustrates an important principle: Problem solving by individuals, organizations, and societies is often futile because not all the possible causes of problems are considered.

Consider an individual making a New Year’s resolution. A person may resolve to lose weight, to exercise more, etc. That person may have acquired a new technique follow, and may be eager to begin. Yet, most techniques fail because a technique will not address the real cause of the problem.

Often, a clue to the real cause of the problem can be found in the stories we tell about our problems. It may be that we do not tell these stories to others; we may simply recite an internal monologue in our mind. Perhaps stories like these sound familiar: “I am overweight because an uncaring parent fed me junk food as a child.” “I don’t exercise because my career is too demanding and I don’t have the time.” “I am justified in holding a grievance against my sister-in-law because of the unforgiveable way she treated me a few years ago.”  “I feel unfulfilled at work because I have never had a boss who gave me latitude to make any decisions.” Yes, some of the facts in our stories may be accurate, but they are rarely the cause of our problem.

We have confused cause and effect. The causes, or I should say justifications, we have in our mind for why we cannot change are really the effect of our decision to not change. They reflect where we are stuck; they tell us the exact situations in which our “cap key” is locked.

In his book Bonds That Make Us Free, Terry Warner writes: “The parts of our psychological history that make a difference now do not reside in the past. They are present. It is our presently held story of the past that is our bondage or our freedom.” In other words, it is not the story, but that we are still holding onto our story that is the source of our problem. Our habits are entrenched, because our stories about what causes our habits are entrenched. To change a habit we must be willing to question and then surrender our story about the habit.

Who would we be without our story? We can’t imagine—and we are frightened to find out. That is the real reason why we don’t lose weight, can’t find time to exercise, or don’t drop our grievances. Rather then drop our story and discover who we really are, we hold on to our current identity as someone, for example, with a weight problem caused by an uncaring parent who fed us too much junk food as a child.

When we see how much we love our stories and how frightened we are to give them up, we understand why we so quickly break our resolutions.  To change, we must be aware of this simple and unpleasant truth: If faced with the choice between giving up our habit and our story or keeping our habit and our story, we will choose the latter most of the time.

This is Part 1. Look for Part 2 in a few days.

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