Perhaps you, like I, are among many earnest goal setters who greeted 2022 with ambitious determination to remake ourselves this year, preferably quickly and painlessly. And perhaps you, like I, have already met with usual stuck spots and discouragement that have compromised our can-do. That annual ritual is near universal. In fact, this year as everyone faces more uncertainty than usual, the probability of stuck spots and discouragement is likely heightened for us all.
Some may already be reviewing the practice of goal setting in general wondering if it may be by nature too envious? Too acquisitive? Too competitive? Too materialistic? Too vain? Additionally, the uncertainty of this moment in time may have discouraged some from engaging in or sticking with the age-old practice. Losing weight has long been an oft-set goal, but some who turn to gym workouts may feel discouraged because of gym closures. Earning and saving more money also typically makes the list of common goals, but those goals likely seem unattainable in this tumultuous job market. Uncertainty has a way of breeding discouragement, and this moment in time is certainly uncertain in unusual ways.
The long tradition of New Year’s resolutions may actually be more relevant than ever in this time of unusual unpredictability. The practice originated thousands of years ago with Janus, a two-faced god, as a symbol of the season. He looked forward and backward at the same time, a privileged perspective that enabled him to find a solid center as he reviewed the past and looked to the future simultaneously. The goal of those ancient traditions was to cause people to recommit to behaving more virtuously – an inward focus. Only recent goal-setters have thought to choose things like weight loss as the ultimate objective of the tradition.
Perhaps we think too small as we consider new plans and commitments. Life – even every day – can feel like something of a run-on sentence without deliberate occasions to come up for air. A new year, even a new day, can serve as a blessed exclamation point, or maybe a clarifying questions mark, or even a welcome comma. Don’t give up on the idea of new beginnings too quickly.
Could it be that we spend too much time thinking about the “What’s” of our behaviors at the expense of the “Why’s?”
Picture a stairway including six steps, all of them ascending upward toward our desired objectives. Label the stairway, “Ladder of Motivation,” a visual I adapted from a presentation I heard years ago. The bottom three steps are all external motivators, while the top three are internal motivators. Any upward motion toward worthy ends is always good, but upward motion motivated by internal, ever-higher motivators has greater potential to promote staying power and greater potential to promote joy in the journey.
The first and lowest step could be labeled Force. A person responding to that motivation engages in a desirable behavior simply because he is forced to do so. His agency is conscripted to preclude the possibility of his making a poor choice. At times, that limitation may be an appropriate imposition. For example, if a person had a dangerous substance abuse problem, he might be confined to a treatment center. The remedy would be temporary but potentially lifesaving.
The second external motivator is Fear. A person motivated by fear makes a good choice only because he is afraid of displeasing someone he cares about, afraid of potential punishment or denial of privileges, or afraid of other potential adverse consequences. Fear and punishment may discourage undesirable behavior in the short term, but that simplistic imposition may pose serious risks. If desirable behavior is only the result of fear or punishment, there must always be someone on location or in the loop to administer that punishment to achieve the effect of the deterrent. The wrongdoer has no opportunity to develop an intrinsic appetite for goodness.
Additionally, when undesirable behavior is promptly responded to with an external punishment, the transgressor often feels he has paid for his error. He may carry on without experiencing a truly changed heart, the establishment of a positive new habit, or a lasting commitment to changed behavior.
A good choice is always a good thing, but our long-term objective for ourselves is to promote movement toward more worthy, more functional, more joyful behaviors and habits that endure without external imposition. The goal is to do and be good because we simply want to do and be good.
The third external motivator is Reward. Reward is closely related to punishment as the other half of a “carrots and sticks” theory of motivation. It is superior in that it is decidedly more positive, but it is still extrinsic in nature. Reward is not necessarily a bad thing. It is simply an immature, impermanent, externally motivated reason for choosing well. It requires someone to provide the reward, rather than encouraging the do-gooder to be sensitive and responsive to quieter, more enduring satisfactions. As a result, expectation and even demand for rewards substitute for more personal and private compensations. The intrinsic compensation of a job well done, a goal attained, or the deep personal satisfaction gained by feeling that one has served another and pleased God may take a backseat to the cheap secular reward that has become the object of the effort.
Admittedly, self-rewards can serve a welcome purpose as motivation. You can be your own “someone” as you build into your routines rewards that you personally can provide. Since we give the rewards to ourselves, they don’t require anyone else to provide the pleasure, and they can turn work into play. I confess to disliking early rising, particularly in the winter when the sky is still dark and the air is still cold. I shamelessly admit that I keep a 72% chocolate bar in our freezer and coax myself out of bed in the early morning with a personal promise that I can claim a square or two of that chocolate as a personal reward for my effort. It works! Playful personal rewards adopted to jump start personal progress toward higher levels of motivation while the intrinsic pleasure and benefits of the new habit or behavior take root can be very helpful – the “spoonful of sugar” approach to consuming what initially may taste like medicine (like those cold, dark winter mornings).
The first of the internal motivators is Duty. A sense of duty can be a strong and positive reason for doing good. It represents a significant step past the external motivators towards truly heavenly ones. Parents know the power and satisfaction of dutiful doing and being. Every conscientious parent has forced himself or herself out of bed at night – or even stayed up through a whole night – with a sick child, simply because that effort and sacrifice of personal comfort was a compelling, heavenly duty. The motivation of duty often includes significant personal sacrifice for the sake of a higher cause or keeping a promise.
The second internal motivator is Faith, a high-level, spiritually-based motivation. To choose good behavior because of our faith in God and our belief that He lives, He knows us, He loves us, and He wants us to become ever more Christlike by choosing Christlike behaviors is powerful. Faith as that quality of motivator is marvelous and enduring. Choosing to establish new patterns of behavior because we have faith in the rightness of the behaviors, and we have faith in the Savior’s desire and willingness to supplement our own best efforts is a durable and promising path to confident personal progress. If I choose to commit to sharing something of the gospel with someone every day, the likelihood of my accomplishing that objective increases dramatically when I pursue the goal empowered by genuine faith that the message is important and precious and that I will certainly be assisted in my effort by the One whose message it is.
The final and most celestial motivator is, of course, charity, the pure love of Christ. Motivation originating in love for ourselves, love for others, and love for God is profoundly joyful.
Every effort we make to improve any relationship will inevitably be magnified by heaven as we address that objective motivated by pure love. A friend of mine sought for years to change her son’s behavior as he struggled with his faith and made poor choices. First she offered rewards, then she threatened punishments in the form of limited family contact. Not only did the son’s faith struggle not ease nor the poor choices improve, the reduced contact with the family caused other problems to emerge. When my friend chose simply to pray for the gift of the love of Christ to govern and characterize her interaction with that precious son, the relationship with the boy was healed and the peace of heaven blessed their interactions. That son’s faith struggle has not disappeared, but the parental relationship is sweet and ongoing. When our behavior towards others is truly motivated by love, our efforts will always be sanctioned and fortified by God, in spite of any complications or clumsiness in the delivery or delay in the grand desired outcomes.
On a very grass roots level, when I am motivated to attend to my physical self because I love and value my body and my health, I am much more likely to establish strong, functional health habits than I would be if I were simply to set lofty, intimidating goals to lose weight. Love for myself rather than a painful desire to conform to some social standard or my perceived sense of the opinions of others can propel my progress toward solid self-care in every positive regard.
When we are operating with genuine love as our motivation, the way we interact with ourselves, others, and God is true to the highest and best within us and we feel a peaceful sense of rightness, even when the outcomes of our planning may not be exactly as we would desire. We feel a persistent sense of the hope implicit in every new day and a promising confidence in the possibility of change, in spite of any short-term disappointments. We are in fact seeking to pattern our behavior after the pattern God himself set when He offered His Son. That gift was offered with no coercion or manipulation of the recipients of the gift – us. He offered His Son as a result of pure love (John 3:16).
Perhaps in this current moment of uncertainty, that sense of promise in the future founded on love is especially precious. As COVID implications persist, external motivations for good behaviors are lessened. We have less interaction with others and spend more time in smaller circles or alone; therefore, internal motivators become ever more essential for promoting our personal progress.
You may have already begun to give up on those traditional resolutions you set the first of January, but I would encourage us all to press on, determined to capture the promise of each new day as a potential new beginning. Perhaps the goals themselves can be reclaimed with a determination to engage in them with higher levels of motivations. External ones: Force to Fear to Punishments and Rewards, to the internal ones: Duty to Faith to Charity, the pure Love of Christ.
An English New Testament scholar, Nicholas Thomas Wright, said: “Love is not our duty; it is our destiny. It is the language Jesus spoke, and we are called to speak it so that we can converse with Him. It is the food they eat in God’s world, and we must acquire a taste for it here and now” (Surprised By Hope, N.T. Wright).
None of us will live motivated by love constantly during mortality, but we do achieve it on occasion and crave and seek it always. When we feel it and live responsive to it, we energetically do and are good “Because We Want To!”