Make this the year you do what's hard.
We are big on New Year's. As it approaches we find ourselves in the mood to explore some different subjects, shift our daily routine, and make new commitments. But we know ourselves well enough to realize that we often resist change, and we need a spiritual practice to reinforce our intention.
A few years ago, reading Bo Lozoff's It's a Meaningful Life: It Just Takes Practice, we were struck by a slogan used in his community: "You can do hard." Lozoff, the cofounder of the Human Kindness Foundation and its award-winning Prison Ashram Project, explains that in our times saying something is "too hard" allows us to give up without trying.
This isn't to say that change is easy it usually isn't. But as Lozoff puts it: "We need not run away in fear just because something is greatly challenging. It might be daunting, but we can do daunting. It might even be scary, but we can do scary."
We're reminded here of St. Paul's witness. He despaired over his inability to change "I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate." He struggled with a "thorn in the flesh" and suffered frequent rejections and even imprisonment. Yet he didn't give up because his life and mission were hard. He found, rather, that he could "do all things through him who strengthens me."
You can do hard, too, but it helps if you reinforce your desire to change with a concrete practice. Making a vow in front of others is one way to give some importance and momentum to your efforts.
Before making a vow, spend some time in prayer and reflection about what is happening in your life, what changes you would like to make for yourself and those around you, and what might be the long-term consequences of this new direction. Ask God to help you sort through the desires that might be based on ego or vanity and those that will help you come closer to who you really are and your purpose in life.
Share this process with your partner, a good friend, your pastor, teacher, or spiritual director. Openly expressing your desire for change is another way of reinforcing it. Discussing your options encourages both hope and flexibility.
Next, write your vow or promise down. Be very specific. For example:
• Recognizing that my body is God's temple, I promise to exercise for 20 minutes each day.
• I promise to spend 1/2 hour a day in silence and prayer.
• I promise to call my parents every week and check in directly with my siblings every month.
These sample vows recognize that in the beginning, it's best to state small goals with a time limit that you know you can achieve. Whenever you complete a promise, you can see the value of making intentions and gain confidence in your willpower. Over time, by keeping short-term vows, you learn that you can do the harder things as well.
After you have written your vow, state it publicly before friends, family, or community. There is real power in making commitments before others. Think of the ceremonies you have attended baptisms, confirmations, weddings. You promise to uphold your vow, and those present make a commitment to support you.
Once you have made a vow, repeat it to yourself every morning. This practice reinforces your intention and also gives you proof positive that with the help of God and community, you can do hard.
This article originally appeared in the "Spiritual Practices" column in The Lutheran.