Obvious Advice for the New Year

We are a few days into 2017 and gym ads arrived right on cue in my mailbox this afternoon. Time to put some teeth to those resolutions (or at least extract some money from those who made them!) Another new year is as good a time as any to start afresh, to seek to right the wrongs, to improve ourselves and accomplish our dreams.

Of the various schools of ancient Greek philosophy, I have always had an affinity for the Stoics — ascetic, logical types, in sharp contrast to the hedonistic Epicureans. Stoics weren’t afraid to make the obvious explicit. Like this gem from Epictetus:

Whatever you would make habitual, practice it;
and if you would not make a thing habitual, do not practice it,
but habituate yourself to something else.

Isn’t this the core of most “self help/ self improvement” writing? Do what you need to do in order to be who you want to be. It’s so obvious as to be laughable. You can find thousands of people on the internet telling you that’s what you need to do to get where you want to be.

So why do we have such a hard time pulling it off?

Take this blog for example. I’ve had it for years, but for most of those years I just wrote on it when I felt like it. Posts were sporadic and widely spaced. 1 January 2016 I decided I wanted to write more, so I set myself a goal to write 500 words a day. The first 6 months, it went pretty well. Then we moved and it has been an uphill climb ever since.

Maybe Europe is just a more inspirational place to write than the Pacific Northwest. My schedule has played a bit of a role, but I have been able to adapt so as to have the time. Even so, I still find it increasingly difficult to get to 500. Part of it is the struggle for material. Finding things to write about seemed to come easier during the first half of the year.

Proficiency comes from sticking with something after the initial thrill wears off until mastery is attained. It is hard. It takes a lot of self discipline. It requires intense effort for seemingly small gains. This holds true whether you are training for a marathon, learning an instrument, or in just about any other pursuit. There is a desert between novelty and mastery that we must cross. It is long, arduous, and often lonely. It can feel barren and dry. But on the other side is the real goal — the attainment of the skill or ability that caught our imagination in the first place.

This applies also to our journey of faith. In an age where people binge-watch television programming like it was their job, it seems we should be able to put that same effort into our own salvation. If we truly want to become holy, we must cultivate holy habits. This takes a lot of work, but what else is worth our greatest effort, if not knowing God?


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