Loose Change: Fortifying the Habits that Matter, Dr. Robert Zuber

30 Dec


I made no resolutions for the New Year. The habit of making plans, of criticizing, sanctioning and molding my life, is too much of a daily event for me. Anaïs Nin

A resolution to avoid an evil is seldom framed till the evil is so far advanced as to make avoidance impossible.  Thomas Hardy

Good resolutions are like babies crying in church. They should be carried out immediately. Charles M. Sheldon

I’m starting to think nothing goes away, no matter how deep you try to bury it.  Laurie Elizabeth Flynn

As the sun sets on this often-tumultuous, often-invigorating year, I return to a favorite subject — resolutions – those things we pledge, individually and collectively, based on an often-shallow view of the human condition that presumes that change comes, if at all, through careful articulations of intent rather than through painstaking reversal of the patterns that have contributed to our being less than what we could be.

In the worlds that I inhabit, the quest for change often embodies a schizophrenic character that ultimately undermines its potential.   The mantra of far too many – this is just how I am – shares the pot with an often deep and impatient demand for change in others, even in the systems that govern and otherwise impact the planet.   Essentially the formula goes, “impossible for me, essential for you.”

In an age of climate change and other existential threats, we can perhaps agree that change towards more sustainable futures is “essential.”  But we can perhaps also agree that such futures require more than summit declarations and resolutions from international institutions.   We have such things in tow now and they “should” make more of a difference in the world.  That they don’t is in part a function of our unwillingness to carefully track and then assess the impacts of previous resolutions and in part a function of our belief – perhaps more like a suspension of disbelief – that there is a tighter relationship than could possibly exist between the presentation of our intent and the diversion of practices that have impeded more significant progress up to the present time.

Some of this is a legacy courtesy of our religious dispositions.  In the Christian tradition, we recite (enthusiastically in my case) a Eucharistic prayer that ends “but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.”  In a similar vein, clergy too-often believe that the word “they” pronounce convicts, that preaching at people provides them with the energy they need to resolve their problems, divert their course, or achieve healthier outcomes.

It might have that impact, at times, in the same way that a timely storm can release long-dormant desert toads from their drought-imposed slumber.  But for most of us, in most instances and contexts, change is less an event than a process, a process that is more about redirecting our life energy – step by step – than by episodic epiphanies which are surely exhilarating if largely unsustainable.

Alarmingly, more and more people I speak with seem suspicious of the notion of change at all, plying rhetoric about “human nature” that seems designed to provide comfort, somehow or other, that we are essentially cut from a self-interested and predatory cloth, about which we can actually, in the end, do little.  This worldview casts suspicion on efforts to seek the good and inspire hope while simultaneously accepting violence and economic predation with an undeserved resignation that simply deepens the habits we would do much better to change. Especially as our calendars flip over, we seem anxious to “turn the page.”  But the book and its plot remain largely the same, and we aren’t as committed as we might be to rewrite what has long become a tired script.

Earlier in what passes for my “career,” I was regularly in touch with a Boston-based group called Second Nature.  I appreciated the work they did but was even more enamored of what the title suggested – a striving for a lifestyle redirected towards more healthful, less violent, more sustainable outcomes, but in such a way that the outcomes became almost effortless – recycling and repurposing of the products we use, saying “yes” even at moments of inconvenience, pushing past the people we have grown comfortable being to the people we say we want to be, demonstrating that it is possible to make modesty of consumption, hospitality for strangers, even leadership for causes and issues close to home or across oceans as part of the “habit” of our lives, what we have “re-trained” ourselves to do, and do differently.   And of course more effective conflict prevention that stems the need for protracted conflict resolution.

Ironically, there is support for this “second nature” approach from diverse sources, certainly from within the religious community, parts of which have long stressed the need to “walk the path of righteousness” rather than wait for a divine lightning bolt. But even neuro-biologists have evidence to suggest that, health permitting, it is within our power to change the way our brains function.  We can, in effect, rewire ourselves to overcome our compulsive life investments – addictions if you will – that are impeding our progress and ensuring that even our resolutions to change and reform are mostly relegated to the waste bin.

But this rewiring isn’t easy and certainly doesn’t happen overnight.   It takes many steps in a new direction before our brains, let alone our hearts and souls, can adjust to a new set of demands and responses.   This is especially the case since we have too often rejected the call to mindfulness about ourselves and the distance that remains to be traveled such that we might contribute –as second nature — to the world that we say we want. This is true of ourselves; also of the United Nations and other institutions we rely on to direct a common response to current global challenges.   As in the personal realm, resolutions to reform are no substitute for concrete measures, day by day, to make our institutions more attentive, more accountable, kinder and more cooperative.

As this New Year unfolds, we find that there is little time to waste.  While we have some progress to celebrate, our unsustainable habits run deep, our tolerance of violence and its many distractions runs deep also.  The longer we continue to walk down the current path –one generally cheered on by advertisers, sports franchises and politicians in power, but also by our friends and neighbors who seem to need reassurance that we will not “rock the boat” on our current, often-rapacious course– the harder it will ever be to shift energies and priorities to better meet the demands of the times.

This shift is not about resolutions per se, not about the “loose change” that seems to be the best we can muster and which will result in little noticeable difference, little in our personal lives but also in the settings where global challenges predominate.  Rather its about the small and resolute steps, one by one, determined as we must make each of them, that will get us to the places envisioned by our personal resolutions and institutional promises; indeed that will help make our better selves “second nature.”

Let this latest calendar shift be the one where we take the consistent, determined steps towards lasting change that we have largely abandoned in resolutions past, stuck in domiciles filled to brimming with our stubborn habits and in houses of worship and other institutions filled with metaphorical “crying babies” that should be “carried out” with much greater urgency.  We can’t bury the mistakes of our past, but we can celebrate our still-formidable potential and those determined and sustainable achievements still to come – indeed that must come – but that surely won’t appear in a timely fashion without the gritty participation of an enhanced version of ourselves.

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