Finding Rest from Traditional Resolutions
By Darla Isackson
I sit watching the flickering flames in the fireplace, still enjoying the afterglow of soft Christmas lights on tree and mantle. I’m contemplating the dying year and the year before me. The New Year always has always seemed a perfect time to regroup, reassess, and resolve to live more fully my deepest values. I pause, this year, however, resisting any kind of resolution.
My heart is broken from the death of my son. I doubt I have energy to put toward any other goal than finding time to really grieve. I did, of necessity what the Grief Recovery Institute calls an “academy award recovery.” I didn’t have time to do anything else. Three days after Brian’s funeral my daughter-in-law Heidi was put on absolute bed rest to prevent an early delivery. They live three blocks from me and I was the obvious choice to coordinate household help and care for my four grandsons, six and under, and take a daily shift.
My first granddaughter, Ariana, arrived safely on November 12, C-section, and her four-year-old brother Nathan broke his arm the day Ariana and Heidi came home from the hospital. Since then I’ve tried to help with the children during Heidi’s recovery, enjoy beautiful little Ariana, do Christmas, and keep up with a bare minimum of household necessities and writing and editing. All these things have been great distractions, but now I need time to seriously pursue grief work.
So what do I need with resolutions? How many of my former lists of New Year’s resolutions have resulted in discouragement with myself rather than measurable progress, anyway?
The Folly of “Checklist” Resolutions
My resolutions used to be lengthy and daunting, reminding me of the list my friend Gladys Allen jokingly compiled of “minimum daily requirements that any halfway decent LDS woman should be living to perfection at this very moment.” I read her list on my talk tape “The Juggling Act” because it puts across the point so well of the folly of the checklist. It includes many noble-sounding and familiar platitudes that one by one nobody could possibly find fault with, but together are no joking matter. Here it is:
“Arise early, plant a garden, bottle and purchase one year’s supply and rotate it, clean up your yard, plant trees, paint fences, eat wheat, bake bread, floss, sanctify your marriage, get physically fit, cease to be idle, stay out of debt, serve with commitment, volunteer for welfare assignments, do family history work, write in your journal, write your life story, pursue excellence, exercise daily, have family prayer and scripture reading twice daily, meditate, have consistent personal prayer and scripture study, do visiting teaching by the 15th, encourage your husband to do his home teaching by the 31st, get an education, wear clothes of your own making, go on a mission, listen to conference, read the Ensign cover to cover, date your spouse each week, have well-prepared Family Home Evenings, serve the one, always say yes, love your neighbor, have a 72-hour kit, don’t lie, be anxiously engaged, make Eagle Scouts of your sons, prepare them for missions, support them on missions, write to the missionaries, read to your children every day, understand your teenagers, swear not at all – even if you have teenagers, have fun with your family, listen to good music, read the best books, be a good citizen, know the candidates and vote, care for your parents, go the second mile, lengthen your stride, be ye therefore perfect, endure to the end, Do It!”
That list makes me tired just reading it. I used to start out my Januarys, Gladys-like list in hand, overwhelmed, but determined – often quoting the Nephi “I will go and do” scripture. With a mighty show of willpower I would get up every morning at 4 or 5 and start on the checklist, making use of every moment, never pausing for breath until I fell wearily into my bed at night. But the impossibility of the task, the obvious lack of hours in the day to do it all, and the absence of goals for play, recreation, and adequate rest soon defeated me. I would lapse into discouragement over my own inadequacies and obvious inability to keep my “righteous” resolutions. I resolved years ago to avoid falling into that trap ever again. But what should I do instead? What kind of resolution would be really helpful? Especially now?
“But One Thing Is Needful”
The “checklist mentality” explored above is counterproductive and can even be Pharisee-like because it is based on outward performance rather than listening to and following the Spirit. It is being a “Martha,” rather than a “Mary.” Jesus said to Martha, who was “cumbered about much serving”: “Thou art careful and troubled about many things: But one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:41, 42). Right now I find it helpful to identify and try to avoid Martha-like behavior and resolve to choose Mary’s “good part.”
Application of the principle is shown in my friend Patricia’s experience. For years she framed her resolutions as “doing” questions such as, “How can I organize myself and the family so we can get more done and serve more?” and, “How can I get my son to do his morning jobs consistently?” Often she realized she expected herself to accomplish goals not totally in her control and consequently ended up frustrated.
One January she made a list of 68 questions – believing that so many areas of her family life were “up to her” to remold and improve. The next twelve months were full of challenges that brought her to consider only one vital question for the next year’s “resolution”: “How will I draw closer to the Savior and turn my life and family over to Him?” Intense trials had brought her to see the one thing that is needful.
She summarizes her current philosophy as: “I Can’t. God Can. I’ll let Him.” She finds the scriptures replete with assurance that the Lord CAN sustain us through our hardest trials, that He will support us, fight our battles, help us “be” as well as “do.” These same scriptures have kept me going these past weeks.
I Rest from Former Resolutions, Hang onto the Savior’s Words
The Savior has so beautifully summarized the essence of what my ultimate gospel goals should be. During these past difficult weeks, I have clung to His words and determine to search them again as I sit here by the fireplace, my scriptures in my lap. The faint smell of burning wood is strangely comforting; the warmth of the fire drives the winter chill from the house as the scriptures drive the chill from my heart.
I turn to Matthew and feel the power of Jesus’ words: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” (Matthew 22: 37, 38) To love as I do myself implies that I first love myself. I feel a special need to love myself right now, to be kind to myself during this difficult grieving process. I bask in the truth that nothing is more important than love.
How important is it to focus my resolutions on this one needful thing, to pull away from a grueling, exhausting task focus and change to a “loving God, self, and others” focus? In John 13:35 Jesus says, “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.” My mind goes back to my former “checklist” years, and I rejoice that Jesus did not say “to be my disciple you must complete an endless checklist of requirements every day of your life.” He defined the essence of discipleship, instead, as love.
I pick up my worn Book of Mormon lovingly and read the words Moroni recorded of his father Mormon’s discourse concerning faith, hope and charity, where charity is defined as the pure love of Christ. I’ve experienced enough of this kind of love to know it is the love I am seeking – for myself, for others.
My eyes rest on a picture of the Savior hung on the wall by my fireplace. It’s the one where He’s holding the little lamb, looking down on it with such compassion that I cried the first time I viewed that picture. That look epitomizes the pure love of Christ to me. I am that little lamb, helpless, weak, feeling lost and forlorn, needing the Lord’s love so much so I can give it to others. Brian is that little lamb, held in his arms, feeling love in a way he never felt it on earth. Mormon powerfully explains the supreme importance of this love: saying that “if ye have not charity ye are nothing, for charity never faileth. Wherefore cleave unto charity, which is the greatest of all … but endureth forever; and whoso is found possessed of it at the last day, it shall be well with him” (Moroni 7: 46, 47).
I choose the scriptures I’ve reviewed tonight as my lifelong, long-term “Resolutions.” (Short-term resolutions right now are to find a grief support group, visit a counselor, etc.) My need for progress toward the pure love of Christ has never been more clear. However, the question always looms: How does one cleave unto charity? How can I achieve this loving nature for more than hours at a time? How is it possible? Can I muster up sufficient willpower to love that way?
I know from experience that loving the Lord more than anything or anyone else, loving my neighbor as myself (and loving myself to begin with) are not achieved by white-knuckled determination, but by the ministrations of the Spirit. And so I reach my final long-term resolution, “Take the Spirit as my guide.” In speaking of the fulfillment of the parable of the Ten Virgins, we read in the D&C: “For they that are wise and have received the truth, and have taken the Holy Spirit for their guide, and have not been deceived – verily I say unto you, they shall not be hewn down and cast into the fire, but shall abide the day” (D&C 45:57). I sigh and remember Patricia’s formula: I can’t. God can. I’ll let Him.
Although the “letting” implies surrender to God’s will, it also requires effort, explained by the scripture, “Pray unto the Father with all the energy of heart, that ye may be filled with this love, which he hath bestowed upon all who are true followers of his Son, Jesus Christ” ( Moroni 7:48). Only when I ask for the Spirit, live for the Spirit does the guidance of the Spirit come. Only as I refer to Christ, defer to Him moment by moment does charity come.
I watch the fire die to glowing embers as this year of 2004 fades away into carefully chronicled memories – for me, profound memories of the marriage of one son and the death of another, the birth of a beautiful granddaughter, spiritual challenge and spiritual growth. I close my scriptures and quietly end my evening of meditating on the subject of resolutions. I rest from all the daunting checklists and summarize my lifelong resolutions in less than one line of print: Love God, love self, love fellow men, take Spirit as Guide.
I will not “arrive” or reach some finish line or accomplish to fullness any of these resolutions in 2005 – but I can travel far on the path toward them. The implications of these powerful goals are as deep and as wide as eternity.
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