As New Year’s Eve approaches, resolutions are on many people’s minds. According to a 2015 Nielsen study, the most popular New Year’s resolutions are staying fit and losing weight. Close seconds are “enjoying life to the fullest” and saving money. Then comes spending more time with friends and family and getting organized.
These changes are great ways to make ourselves feel better by enlivening us physically and mentally, helping us feel secure in the world; and increasing our productivity. Spending time with loved ones is always good, assuming those relationships are healthy and supportive or are at least open to improvement.
Of course, we don’t need to wait for New Year’s Eve to resolve to do better. I make such resolutions all year round. For instance, I want to spend more time with family, be consistent with my yoga and meditation practice, and carve out more time for reflection and stillness. Like most people, though, I am woefully unsuccessful at changing my current patterns of behavior.
One reason appears to be that we think long-term gains are what motivate us to make change, but that’s only partly true. Such desires get us started. We want to live a long life, for instance, so eating right and exercising seem like good ideas. Some of us want strong marriages or successful children, so we decide to make changes we think will help with that.
What keeps us going, though, what helps avoid slip ups or relapses, are the immediate rewards we experience from our new behavior. Without those rewards, researchers Kaitlin Woolley and Ayelet Fishbach discovered, we’re probably going to go back to our old ways, no matter how appealing those long-term gains look.  If we enjoy the exercise program or the new diet or the meditation regimen, we’ll stick with it. Otherwise, we won’t.
That doesn’t mean we should pay ourselves for every pound we lose or give ourselves a treat when we meditate for half an hour. Somehow, we need to make it fun to exercise or meditate or eat right. If we want to read more, we should choose books we enjoy. To eat more vegetables, we need to make them taste good. If we’re trying to stay sober, we can think about how good it feels to wake up without a hangover. Even if we don’t like slogging through laps, we can motivate ourselves by remembering that energized feeling we get afterwards. If nothing else, we can use charts to give us a sense of satisfaction when we check off what we’ve done or use exercise apps to stay motivated.
We’re going to stick with things that activate those feel-good chemicals in our brain, boost our self-esteem, give us an immediate sense of satisfaction, and that are fun. So, to be successful in our plans for change, we need to figure out how our new habits can make us happy in the moment. Gain does not require pain.
That’s true, at least, of any one of the typical New Year’s resolutions I’ve come across. If we want to, we can make ourselves miserable when we exercise or organize or save money, but we don’t have to. Yet what if we are interested in less socially-acceptable goals? What if we want to pursue something more spiritual? Can this also be fun?
It seems it can be, as long as we focus on self improvement. Authors such as Brené Brown, who helps us deal with shame, and Tara Brach, who encourages acceptance and compassion, provide important messages about imperfection, acceptance, and serenity. They’re focused on real healing. Yet they are also popular because they teach concrete techniques that can make us feel better, be happier.
Yet is the goal of spirituality really happiness? What makes meditation spiritual, for instance, isn’t the goal we are pursuing, whether that be improved heart health or enlightenment. Rather, what makes meditation spiritual is that we let go of purpose and goal and concrete techniques. Instead, we do our best to focus on the moment instead of some future ideal. Spirituality isn’t about attainment. It’s about being.
I guess that means we can’t really make spiritual resolutions. Once we commit to something, once we set a goal for ourselves, it becomes one more task rather than a spiritual experience or relationship.
Nonetheless, I’m going to suggest that this year, we focus on a spiritual goal, such as reconciliation.
When We Harm Others
Those of us who have an ability to experience empathy will, at one point or another, do things we regret. We all betray our values sometimes; we all wound those around us, in little and big ways. Have we gotten impatient or angry, pointed out the faults of others while glossing over our own, or minimized the hurts we have caused? If we look deeply into who we are and what we’ve done, we might feel uncomfortable, but we might also learn something important.
Yet learning might not be enough. By looking deeply, we will discover we will see how wonderful we truly are, but we will also see how often we fall short. If we have the capacity to empathize, we will then want to repair the damage we have done. We will want to reconcile.
Sometimes reconciliation is easy. We simply need to turn to our loved ones and say we are sorry. If the hurt is from months ago, our partner or child or friend may even have forgotten it.
At other times, reconciliation is more challenging.
The Challenge of Reconciliation
When Martin Buber was young, just as World War I was starting, he discovered how hard reconciliation can be.
At the time, Buber believed that the measure of one’s religiosity was the degree to which one felt an ecstatic union with the divine. On a morning when he was deep in prayer and meditation, feeling the majesty of that mystical connection, a young man came to visit him. Buber found it difficult to break away from his reverie, so although he was attentive to the man’s conversation, he “failed to turn to him completely.”  Thus he didn’t notice the young man’s true concerns and worries, the ones that lay beneath the words he spoke. Thus, Buber never lifted up what the man was really saying. He never gave him a chance to share what was truly on his heart.
Later, Buber learned, the young man died in the war.
Buber blamed himself. Upon remembering their conversation, he realized that a “despair of death” hung over the young man, infusing his words, though he said nothing directly about his feelings. Yet Buber knew that had he listened with full attention, if he had let go of the glow of his mystical state, he would have heard the young man’s despair and drawn out his concerns. By by failing to give the man the hope and spirit of life he needed to survive, Buber concluded that he caused the soldier’s death.
Obviously no one can know if this is factually true or not. Yet I trust Buber’s analysis that he was not adequately present during their conversation. That in itself is a harm we often cause one another. I notice it mostly when I am working as a chaplain, those moments when I withdraw a little or lose my focus. I like to think I catch myself quickly. Certainly I try to repair any damage done. Yet I too often fall short.
In my personal life I fall short, as well. Feeling scattered by competing commitments, I might pay but scant attention to something my husband tells me. Though less likely to do this with my children, there are times I don’t hear what they say beneath their words. How much hurt could have been avoided had I done better?
Buber’s experience and mine are not exactly the same. I don’t fail to fully “turn” toward another because of mystical reverie. Yet Buber’s failure because of his ecstatic union is like mine in one way: we are both being less than mindful. We fail because we are not living fully in the moment.
The Religious Experience
Living fully in the now is at the core of the religious experience. Buber came to see that God doesn’t want us to get lost in mystical reverie. God wants us to be in right relationship. At the heart of religion and spirituality, Buber notes, is “genuine dialogue.”  We cannot have such dialogue if we are not fully present, whether because we’re distracted by worries or by thoughts of God.
So Buber made a commitment to change. He developed a new religious understanding, revised his spiritual practices, and came to honor the nuances of relationship, whether with God or other people. Had this early tragedy not occurred, he might would have gotten beyond his isolated prayers and reflection.
His commitment to a new king of faith was one step toward reconciliation. Obviously, he could not make amends directly with that young man, for he youth had died. But Buber could reconcile with the man’s memory. He could also reconcile with God and with himself. He wrote about his experiences, invited the world to explore a new way of being in relationship, and thus had a positive impact on those around him.
Few of us have the opportunity to influence so many people as Buber has. Yet we can, nonetheless, affect the lives of those around us by the commitments we make today..
Reconciling with Those Who Aren’t There
In his book about reconciliation, Thich Nhat Hanh explains how this happens.
We reconcile by doing work within ourselves. Of course, we might apologize and seek forgiveness from those we’ve harmed, but we are the ones who change. We are the ones who begin anew. Yet just as Buber changed the world by changing himself, so we change our friends and family by becoming a new person. Our transformation is passed on.
This happens whether or not the person with whom we wish to reconcile is alive.
Hanh uses the example of reconciling with our mothers. If we are so angry at our mother that we hate her, we are unlikely to be communicating with her at this time. Perhaps she has stopped talking with us. Or maybe she has died.
Even in this extreme situation, where hate exists between us, our mother lives within our being. “And more than that: She is us,” Hanh writes. “And we are her.” Thus, if we reconcile with ourselves, we also reconcile with our mother; if we reconcile with her, we reconcile with ourselves. 
Understanding this might help us forgive the woman who birthed us, if forgiveness is necessary. It might help us admit the ways we damaged the relationships, as well. If we do the work of reconciliation deeply enough within ourselves, we might even find we can reconcile in person with someone we thought we’d never speak to again.
To do this, though, we must be able to admit that we fall short, we fail, we make mistakes. Many things get in the way of this: shame, pride, perfectionism, our cultural expectations that we be strong and successful. Honesty can be so hard.
If it doesn’t feel good in the moment, will we be able to sustain a spirituality that demands that we be truthful, that demands that we apologize and reconcile?
Resolving to Do Better
I think it’s less that reconciliation does not feel good as that we fear it will hurt. In some ways, it might. But if we push onward, if we acknowledge our mistakes and love ourselves regardless, if we reach out to repair what has been broken, we may find the kind of joy Buber gave up. Deep connections are mystical and magical, whether they are with God or with other people. Reconciliation makes such connections possible.
As the New Year approaches, I commit to seeking reconciliation whenever it is necessary. Whether I can ask forgiveness in the flesh, or whether I must speak to a spirit, may I seek to heal rifts with anyone I have harmed. If anyone feels harmed by me, may they let me know, and may I be open enough to listen.
For this to happen, though, I think I must work hard at staying mindful. This is what Hanh says is at the core of reconciliation. If we are deeply mindful of this moment, we will be able to “touch the past.” We might even be able to change it.
Making Changes Inside Ourselves
If we have, for instance, said cruel things to our grandmother, we can “sit down, practice mindful breathing in and out, and . . . ask our grandma to be there in us.” Then we can apologize and state our intention to never say such cruel words again, not just to her, but also not to others. Like Buber, we will hopefully learn from our mistakes and seek to change. According to Hanh, such intention and action will make our grandmother smile, wherever she is. [5.]
We don’t need to believe our deceased grandmother can possibly know what we are saying or thinking. All we need to remember is that if we seek her forgiveness, if we reconcile with her, if we commit to a new way of being in the world, we will bring joy to those around us and to people we touch – or they – touch in the future.
In this way, I hope to improve my relationships with those who are still alive, as well as those who are not. As Buber points out, our true religious task is to engage in honest and mindful dialogue with those who come into our lives. Because we are imperfect, we will at times betray people who seek to dialogue with us. But no matter what we have done, or failed to do, reconciliation is possible. We need simply turn toward the truth and toward the other. In this way, we might even touch the divine.
In faith and fondness,
- Woolley, Kaitlin and Ayelet Fishbach, “Immediate Rewards Predict Adherence to Long-Term Goals,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 1-12, 2016, http://faculty.chicagobooth.edu/ayelet.fishbach/research/Woolley&FishbachPSPB.pdf, accessed 12/29/18.
- Kramer, Kenneth Paul. Martin Buber’s Spirituality : Hasidic Wisdom for Everyday Life, Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2011, 97.
- Ibid 97.
- Nhat, Hanh, Thich. Reconciliation : Healing the Inner Child, Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 2006, 61.
- Ibid 61.
Copyright © 2018 Barbara E. Stevens All Rights Reserved