Now that it’s February, I have to ask, how are those New Year’s Resolutions coming? I haven’t made a New Year’s resolution since 2017 when I resolved to read less and do more. It lasted five days until my infant daughter got sick and just wanted me to sit in a rocking chair and hold her, which meant I checked very little off my to-do list and just read my Kindle.
In the past couple of years, resolutions have been replaced by habits. We keep bullet journals and set our daily intentions. We establish micro routines and hope that perhaps we can habit our way to achieving our goals.
I have no problem with the idea of habits. I think they are a great idea. The problem with habits is the problem with most things—humans set habits and humans are just not that good at sticking with them.
I love the idea of being a disciplined person. I wish I was the kind of person who could always choose vegetables instead of cookies, the person who chose to read a classic novel rather than a mass-market murder mystery, someone who woke up early to exercise or read my Bible or pray. I am not that person. But, the idea of self-control exposes my true desire—a desire for control.
A few years ago, I, along with many other Americans, stumbled across The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, a primer for organizing your way to a controllable life. Marie Kondo, the famous organizer and minimalist, taught all of us that if we could just fold our clothes in a certain way and reduce clutter, our lives would be manageable. I too held all my clothes and books and asked, “Does this spark joy?” This program of organization (read: control) was the ticket—from now on, with fewer possessions and a less cluttered closet, my life would be manageable. I lasted six days before I found that folding my toddler son’s t-shirts in just the right way took much too long, and I returned to, horror of all horrors, stacking his clothes in the drawer.
Recently, Kondo made headlines when she admitted in a blog post that she herself has thrown in the (probably perfectly folded) towel. In recent promotional interviews for her new book, Kondo admitted she has let her normally super-organized, minimalist home get a little messy. Yes, you read that correctly. She recently posted to her blog, “Just after my older daughter was born, I felt unable to forgive myself for not being able to manage my life as I had before. But, with time, I eased up on myself; then, after I gave birth to my second daughter, I let go of my need for perfection altogether. I am busier than ever after having my third child, so I have grown to accept that I cannot tidy every day—and that is okay!”
Of course, the Internet exploded. Mothers of children everywhere celebrated that Kondo has finally joined the ranks of normal mothers who are not able to tidy every day (or any day). I recently told a mother who just had her third child that the first year of my third child’s life was my most demanding year of parenting. Hearing that Marie Kondo could not organize her way past the common obstacle of toddlers gave the rest of us a sense of hope.
All of this is probably why I cannot stop thinking about an article in The Atlantic last year, by Amanda Mull. Titled, “You Can’t Simply Decide to Be a Different Person,” the article details Mull’s research on discipline and self-control:
“We all want things—human longing knows no bounds—and plenty of people do genuinely throw themselves into trying something new, without much success at converting those behaviors into lasting habits. If some people can just get up one day and decide to behave differently for the rest of their life, why do most people fail at it again and again?
The conventional wisdom on changing habits goes something like this: You can change if you really want to. Americans especially tend to see ourselves and one another as individuals with identical reservoirs of willpower, which some people choose to use and others to not.”
But even as Mull reminds us of the looming societal judgment of those who fail, she introduces new scientific evidence that this long-held belief is in fact, not verifiable. “According to Michael Inslicht, a social psychologist at the University of Toronto, the most recent research suggests that conscious decision making plays a much more minor role in people’s actions than previously thought, and long-term behavior patterns largely aren’t created by stringing together a series of conscious choices.” Inzlicht goes on to explain that just like other personality traits, self-control differs from person to person and is most likely based on “heredity, culture and environment.” It’s not that they are more controlled, it is that they are naturally less distractible. We hold these disciplined people up as paragons of virtue but it would be the same as holding up someone taller as more righteous.
As Christians, we often attach righteousness to being disciplined. As a young adult, I was taught that the most virtuous people woke up early to have a quiet time, ascribing value to being an early riser. People who deny their sinful urges are held up as saints. But, in reality, Jesus chose to spend his time not with those who had it all together but those who would never have been considered highly controlled. “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but the sinners to repentance,” he says in Luke 5:31. It is those who know that they cannot will themselves into a better body, spirit, mood or habit who understand the gift of grace.
I recently attended my first Al-Anon meeting and am still on step 1, namely the clause, “that my life had become unmanageable.” As the basis for all of the other steps, this one requires the most from me. I long to manage my life but I am more drawn to the freedom and mercy that lie on the other side of admitting my own powerlessness.
In my church, we have a prayer that begins, “Almighty God, you alone can bring into order the unruly wills and affections of sinners … ” As much as I might believe I play a part in controlling my will, it is not we who bring our wills and affections into order but only God through the work of the Spirit. We cannot discipline or habit our way to righteousness. We are given that through Christ Jesus, so perhaps, like Marie Kondo, we too can throw in the towel and rest in his grace.