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Sunday, January 5, 2014

Note to Self

Presented by Rev. Diane Teichert with Dayna Edwards, Director of Religious Exploration and Noel Monardes, Worship Associate

Note to Self

A sermon preached by the Reverend Diane Teichert

January 5, 2014

Paint Branch Unitarian Universalist Church

On December 31st of 2012, a year ago, I announced a New Year’s Resolution that was exciting to me, wasn’t mine to start with, and became impossible for me to fulfill.  It was a result of a game.

What happened was this. My family – husband and our two grown children – were with a group of friends for a new year’s gathering in New England, as we have been every year for thirty years. It’s usually for the weekend between Christmas and New Year’s nearest New Year’s Day, but not necessarily for New Year’s Eve, depending on how the holidays fall. Last year, though, we were together for the actual passing from 2012 to 2013 and so we played a game involving our new year’s resolutions. 

But first I have to tell you who was there. The group includes adults roughly my age and the children of those who have children – so over these thirty years, we’ve gone from the baby carrier phase to kids on sleds phase to teens wanting to down-hill ski phase to the way it is now:  us older folks with as many of the young adults as possibly can make it, several bringing their so far uniformly really terrific significant others. We all enjoy each other cross-generationally for conversations, games, meal prep and clean-up, hikes, and cross country skiing if we are lucky enough to have snow. Two activities from the past that have not survived into this current phase are a sing-along of labor, women’s and civil rights movement songs and, for another of the evenings, an intimate “circle time” during which we each shared the truth of what the previous year had been like for us – I guess that seems a bit too heavy to do with one’s own grown children or one’s own aging parents listening. The first wedding is planned for this summer, and we envision babies in just a few years.

So, you get the scene for the new year’s resolution game:  adults 60-ish and 20 to 30-ish who knew each other fairly well, sharing values as well as the passage of time in common. We were each given a slip of paper on which to write a new year’s resolution. It was supposed to be one we would really make, if we were into making resolutions, that we wouldn’t mind reading aloud. Then all the slips were put in a hat, the hat was passed, and everyone took a slip, and looked at it to make sure they’d not drawn their own and, if they had, to toss it back and choose another. We then had a minute or two to think about whether the resolution we had drawn was one we’d like to adopt for our self or not.  Then we went around the circle, read the slip aloud and declared our intent to honor it or not. The last segment of the game was to go around again, each person having a chance to guess who had written the resolution they’d drawn and for the real author to identify him or herself.

The most hilarious situation emerged when one of the 60-ish women read aloud the resolution she had drawn, no doubt written by one of the younger adults, that stated simply, “Be more like Joel.” That may not sound funny to you, but Joel is her husband! Despite being relatively happily married, there was no way that she would publicly resolve to be more like him.  So, she could barely read the slip of paper for laughing, and all of us – and especially the other women her age – joined her in laughing and somehow the laughter took on a life of its own and went on and on. Even Joel thought it was pretty funny. However, when it calmed down, she nevertheless said there were one or two things she admired in him… which she felt would benefit her, so she accepted it as a resolution for herself.

Not everyone accepted the resolution they’d drawn, but I did.

The resolution I drew was something I’d theoretically aspired to do for some time, but had not ever attempted. When it came my turn, I read aloud,  “Do a century ride” and, said that I’d adopt it as my own.  As I recall, everyone was impressed, or maybe they were a bit incredulous. I’d just committed to bicycling for 100 miles in one day! These “century rides” are organized in many different locales. But don’t be too awed: I knew that there is one every year on the Eastern Shore of Maryland– which, as you may know, is very flat! That’s what I had in mind when I resolved to do it!

Back then, one year ago, I was quite excited about this goal. But I’d also developed pain in my knees whenever I went up a set of stairs or walked up even a slight incline. So shortly after new year’s, I sought medical attention, was told to stay off my bicycle, underwent physical therapy twice a week for three months, started daily exercises, applied topical medication for a month, and finally – exasperated that nothing seemed to work - asked for x-rays. They revealed mild arthritis.

Shortly after the diagnosis, mysteriously, the pain pretty much disappeared, possibly due to one, or more, or all of the interventions – or not. And I started riding my bicycle again in July, wearing knee braces as advised, without much pain, to my great relief. But I’d long ago given up on training for my century ride. I’m hoping for 2014!

As you may have guessed, I don’t take New Year’s Resolutions too seriously. Which isn’t to say that there aren’t things about myself and my behaviors I wish were different. And I totally recognized that any of us as individuals may have habits or proclivities such that our very survival depends on changing our behavior. And certainly we all as a society have behaviors, such as our energy usage and pollution creation, that must be changed if life as we know it is to continue.

And, of course, I know it’s true, as you read at the top of your Order of Worship, heard in the Opening Words, and found echoed in the reflection offered by our Worship Associate Noel Monardes, that “We stand at a threshold, the new year something truly new, still unformed, leaving a stunning power in our hands.”

So, why poke fun at New Year’s Resolutions? Maybe because I’ve lived long enough to know that mine tend to evaporate within a few weeks!

How do we change our behaviors? What kinds of resolutions are long-lasting?

As you would expect, different methods work for different folks.

On January 1st, the NY Times ran an op ed article about reducing alcohol consumption, a popular new year’s resolution. Research shows better success than with Alcoholics Anonymous for some problem drinkers – especially women – who are not severely dependent on alcohol, with a new Internet-based program that helps drinkers evaluate their drinking, set limits, self-monitor while they’re drinking, get feedback on their progress, and identify and manage triggers to overdrinking. It’s called moderatedrinking.com. (“Cold Turkey Isn’t the Only Route, “ NY Times, 1/1/2014, p. A19).

Many other people find AA, Narcotics Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous and the other related groups to be just what they need, due to the twelve-step program and community of support.

Whether we turn to our higher power or our inner voice, a support community or the anonymity of the Internet, what are the spiritual aspects of making and keeping our resolutions?

One spiritual aspect has to be:  love yourself, regardless. Regardless of how you’re doing with your resolutions. When you’re honoring them and when you’re letting them go by the wayside, love yourself. Follow the words of Jesus who said, “Love your neighbor as yourself” meaning “love yourself first, then your neighbor.”

Why love yourself? It just doesn’t seem likely that we who hate or harshly judge ourselves are going to be able to empower ourselves to make the changes we desire to make. Remember the transforming power of love and let your love for yourself work to transform you. If the love’s just not there, open yourself to love from others, from the Spirit of Life, from God, the universe, from wherever. Let it in, then love yourself, regardless.

Another spiritual aspect of making and keeping resolutions is humility. Humility is not shame. Humility is self-acceptance in the face of self-disappointment. Humility is not expecting perfection. In the expression, “love yourself, regardless,” maybe humility is the “regardless.”

Mike Tyson, the retired heavyweight boxing champion, writes about humility - believe it or not - in an op ed piece that starts, “It’s the time of year for resolutions. Lose 20 pounds, get to the gym, heat healthier, be more productive, whatever. But in a few months, many people will let these goals fall by the wayside, to be revived next year. I belong to a group who can’t afford to make pledges we don’t keep. I’m an addict.…”

He has found that it is in his times of success that he is most likely to resort to drugs or alcohol. So, he is training himself to focus on his flaws when others are feeding his ego. “This way,” he writes, “I don’t allow my narcissism to… allow me to think that I can act without any consequences….This is the best I’ve ever felt. I’m on the pathway to humility.” (NY Times, 1/4/2014, p. A17).

The Latin roots of the words “humility” and “humble” are akin to “humus” or earth, ground, soil – meaning the brown or black substance resulting from the partial decay of plant and animal matter – what we’d call compost. It’s helpful to me to think of humility as related to being grounded. Grounded in the truth about ourselves – neither self-aggrandizement nor self-denigration. And, like compost, humility requires the casting off and breaking down of ways of being that are not productive or healthy.

Some of us are drawn into our unhealthy habits when we are feeling down – and in need of love -  and others of us are drawn into our unhealthy habits when we are feeling above it all – and in need of a little humility. So, it strikes me that a common spiritual denominator to making resolutions that we can keep is knowing the truth about ourselves.  The truth will set us free.

And then there’s yesterday’s comic, The Knight Life, by Keith Knight. Says one fellow, “Less than a week into the New Year and I’ve already broken all my resolutions!!” And the other responds, “You’re going about it all wrong, dude!! Each year, I resolve to gain a little more weight, watch more TV and go into more debt!! By creating a set of realistic reachable goals, I am bound to be successful, raising my overall self-worth! And if I break ‘em, whatever! I’m healthier and better off!”

So it goes with these “notes to self” that we call resolutions. They are as good as the intention with which they are made. It is said that the ancient Hindu text, the Upanishads, puts forward the notion of “intentionality” this way:

“You are what your deepest desire is.
As your desire is, so is your intention.
As your intention is, so is your will.
As your will is, so is your deed.
As your deed is, so is your destiny.”


So, the connection between our deepest desire, our true resolution, and our will to act on it – to make it our deed – is our intention. Merely having a desire or making a resolution does not lead directly to using our will to make it happen – what is needed is to cultivate our intention. For me, one way to cultivate my intention involves noticing and affirming what happens when I do make good on a resolution, however briefly. For example, in a period of high stress, getting physical exercise or meditating noticeably and reliably grounds me. Affirming that shift in me reinforces my intentions – it connects me to my deep desire for peace and it makes me want to meditate, swim or walk or bike, or whatever it was, again.

Whatever your resolutions, whatever “notes to self” you may have made in the past week - whether you are working to maintain a long-standing promise to yourself, or you’ve made a brand new one, or –like me - you are resurrecting last year’s goal – and whether it is love or humility you most need (or both), may each day of the new year find you trusting your own intentions a bit more, linking your deep desires with your ability – your will – to act on them, deed upon deed, so that it becomes your way of life.

Yet, let’s also be light-hearted about it. So that we are open to the serendipities and opportunities that come our way, seemingly without any intention on our part at all. Those are among the best things in life!

In that sense, let it be a dance with life that we do. And let us now sing together hymn #311, Let it Be a Dance.

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