The Best Kind of New Year’s Resolution
By Darla Isackson
The beginning of a new year is prime time for goal setting. Sometimes I resist making “New Year’s resolutions” because I have not succeeded in keeping so many of the ones I made in the past. How can I be wiser in planning and goal setting? How can I invite the Lord into this process so that the resolutions I make can be part of a personal repentance and improvement process He will support–rather than an evidence of seeking my own will, rather than His?
Some of the goals I’ve set in the past did not take into consideration the agency of others–or the great variable of the Lord’s timetable. Dallin Oaks, of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, in an article called “Timing” gave wise counsel: “Because of things over which we have no control, we cannot plan and bring to pass everything we desire in our lives. Many important things will occur in our lives that we have not planned, and not all of them will be welcome. Even our most righteous desires may elude us or come in different ways or at different times than we have sought to plan.” Elder Oaks gave many vivid examples, including several from his own life.” (Dallin Oaks, “Timing,” Ensign October, 2003, pp. 10-17)
From Elder Oaks counsel I learn that the most important part of goal setting is to focus on what I can control: committing to improve myself. Too often I tend to think the progress I desire depends on being able to talk other people into changes I want them to make.
When Others Do Not Choose to Change
A dear friend of mine is currently serving a mission. I love her letters and constantly learn from her experiences. With her permission I want to share one that illuminates the process of change. To protect their privacy I will call my missionary friend “Sister H.” and her companion “Sister R.”
Sister H. wrote, “It is a personal education and adventure to learn about Sister R. I have always been fascinated by people. Who they are inside? Why and how they got that way? I like to try to understand all sorts, just as I like to taste different desserts. And I like to examine our interactions. I want to see what there is to learn from them, because EVERYONE teaches me something valuable, even when it is uncomfortable education.
“Sister R. is unlike anyone I have every lived closely with. She is cheerful and kind, laughs easily, and cares intensely about others. However, she is extremely independent and determined to live her life her own way. This relationship is a chance to see if I can interact in a way that is pleasant for us both with someone so different from me. The hardest thing for me to adjust to is that Sister R. just doesn’t speak at all if she has no vital information to convey, and doesn’t respond to any message I give unless she considers it vital.
“I am a very verbal learner. I like to be told what things mean, and how people feel. So it is disconcerting to me when I make a comment and ask for a response and she doesn’t answer, or even look at me. I wondered at first if her deafness was worse than I thought, and one day while she was driving us to an appointment, I spoke my pleasantries in an increasingly loud voice. Still no response, not even a glance. I finally gave up. When we got to a corner, she asked, “Is this where we turn?” In a quiet voice I said, “Yes, turn left, and go to the next corner.” She replied, “Left to next corner. OK.” So I knew she could hear everything I said very well. She was simply choosing not to respond.
“On Wednesday I threw my back out, and had a lot of pain. I say “threw my back out,” but I know better. Invariably, my back develops spasms and pain only when to shove out of consciousness a problem I cannot solve. The unsolvable problem, of course is my strange relationship with Sister R., who is the most faithful, obedient, conscientious person you could meet, but who simply doesn’t talk much, and doesn’t answer me more than half the time I speak to her. Since I feel that a person who doesn’t talk to me is irritated or angry, this pattern was a major problem for me. I knew I wouldn’t get rid of this back pain until I worked it through, so I tried bringing it up, first indirectly (“Some people don’t respond to comments unless their response has a necessary purpose. My husband was that way, and I never knew if he was listening, or angry with me, etc. etc. etc.) She listened without comment to all I said. Then, sometime later, said she thought she might be that way a little. I commented on ways I had helped my husband learn to let me know he was listening to me. She did not respond to that until that evening, and then kindly said that she has such complete focus on whatever she is doing, and she finds her focus so necessary to her personality and functions that she doesn’t think she will change and become more open to conversation. She will talk and laugh and be sociable when that is her specific purpose and intent, but not otherwise. We talked more specifically, and I told her of my discomfort with her communication style, and how it related to my psychosomatic back problem. Again she replied, always in the kindest way, that she saw no need to change, didn’t want to change, and hoped I could accept her as she was.
“Well, that’s really the bottom line. We cannot change anyone who doesn’t want to change of their own free will. So my next task is to learn to accept, willingly and happily, to live with someone who is exceedingly foreign to my nature, and has no desire to make modifications in her personality.
“My first exercise is to make modifications in myself, as much as I can, to adapt to her. I constantly remind myself of the truth that all of us are valuable tools in the hands of God. A scalpel cannot toast bread. A radio cannot dig trenches. A computer cannot wash clothes. A bookcase cannot keep your feet warm. Every tool has its necessary function, and is needed for the whole of life to develop as God wants it to develop. In many ways her examples are good for me to see and live with. They will help me be flexible, and to learn other techniques of socializing and behaving, and to let go of expectations of companionship I thought I couldn’t live without. It’s a good lesson, but not an easy one. So, I adjust. Sister R. is so pleasant when she finally DOES say something, that I am forced to conclude that she feels just fine toward me, and I now presume she takes many questions and comments as rhetorical. It is rather lonely for me to not chat about thoughts and feelings and the trivialities of life, but by Friday, my back was fine! Since I have given up on verbal pleasantries, and accepted simply living parallel lives (like civilized roommates), I find it quite restful. It’s almost as easy as being alone. Not as much fun as being with someone who likes to converse, philosophize, wonder, and recount their day’s adventures–but restful.”
How “restful” would our lives be if we could learn to accept others as they are and quit trying to change them?
But What If the Offending Party is a Spouse?
That’s all well and good for a missionary companion, you might say. You only have to put up with them for a few months at best. (Admittedly, the Sister who told her story is now with her third companion since Sister R.) But what if the person causing you constant distress is your spouse and you are committed for the duration? How much harder is it to become reconciled to things you can’t change when you live with those problems day in and day out and there is no end in sight?
Another friend told me of her struggle when she became aware that her husband, an active and faithful member of the Church, had a problem with Internet pornography. The evidence was far too convincing to ignore. At first she felt it was her responsibility to gather the evidence and confront him. She said, “My life was full of stress. I was constantly trying to sneak up behind my husband to check on him, make certain what he was viewing. I got knots in my stomach whenever I saw him sitting in the corner with his laptop in a position where I could not see what was on the screen. I would try to stay up late whenever he did so I could see what he was doing. When he stayed up all night, I tried to stay up with him. I was trapped in fear, fortune telling about the future, trying to control him, trying to keep him so busy he wouldn’t have time for the Internet, trying to somehow make it impossible for him to spend time on the computer. But it was all an exercise in miserable futility. I was all too aware that he would find a way if that was what he really wanted to do.
“One day the Lord reminded me of a lesson I had learned from the Spirit a few years ago. I saw myself sitting in Sacrament Meeting. My son (not a baby, but a grade-schooler) had rolled underneath the bench in front of us, and I kept pulling at him trying to get him to sit up properly. He absolutely ignored me. When the Sacrament was being passed I couldn’t think about my covenant with the Lord; I was too busy thinking about my son. Suddenly the Spirit said to me, ‘Mind your own business.’ I was duly chastised and asked the Lord to help me focus on what I could control–myself.
“As I remembered that experience I realized that I couldn’t change or control what my husband was doing or experiencing. Agency is a very basic tenet of God’s plan and control is not the Lord’s way. I had to stop trying to change my husband and start looking at what I could do for myself to regain some peace in my life. I started going to a support group and received strength from other women in the same position. I learned to work on my own attitude and level of spirituality.
Leaving a Loved One to the Lord
This friend shared the following journal entry: “Went to Recovery and had a blessing. Words I remember are ‘Peace will come through reading the scriptures. God loves you.’ Someone there made the comment, ‘Mother Eve, as great as she was, did not come to this dispensation–we did. We will be given the tools to transcend the challenges of this dispensation.’ Still I was depressed, but the next morning I pondered the dream I had had during the night. My husband was there with his Scouts and all the kids were there. I had left the area of fresh, cold spring water following after a dog and realized I had to return. I was so thirsty and needed to find the spring. Suddenly I realized the spring symbolized the living water of the scriptures. As soon as everyone had left for school, I grabbed my scriptures. I read in D&C the phrase: ‘honorable men who are blinded by the craftiness of men’ and went on from there, finding scripture after scripture that applied to my situation. Just seven minutes into my reading of the scriptures I began to feel better.”
She concluded, “The Lord has continued to teach me principles about how to handle the problem when it happens–how to accept it. I prayed constantly for my husband. I remembered that my husband’s parents had been married in the temple and had received promises that applied to their posterity–including my husband. I asked continually for a change of heart–to be able to live in faith, not fear. I turn to the scriptures–stay where there is living water. I need it every day. I need constant spiritual water–not occasionally. I need constant water to stay hydrated, to keep my spiritual health intact.
“When I falter I remembered that the birth process is a painful process. This idea of being born again is like that–painful for me, but if I can daily come to Christ and focus on my own need to repent, I don’t have to stay in the pain of what my husband is choosing to do. Sometimes the process is so much simpler than we think it will be. The major thing is to ask the Lord for a change of heart for myself; to admit that I cannot change my loved one and that I cannot even change my own heart, but that I know the Lord has power to change it, even to change my nature when I am willing to have him do it.
“A change of my heart did come–eventually. One day I knew I could walk into a room and know he was viewing inappropriate material, but still love him, pray for him, and leave him with his agency to choose what to do about it. I believe in him and that his good heart will prevail (and it is prevailing as I have cause to wonder about his choices less and less frequently). I believe in the Atonement and know that it applies to my husband. I still struggle, but the spiritual reminder is always there that the person I can change is me, and that the major responsibilities I have for my husband are simply to love him and to pray for him.”
The moral of this story–in regard to resolutions–would be: If this were my problem, my resolution would not read: get my husband to quit viewing pornography. It would read: I will turn to the scriptures daily for living water and to the Lord moment by moment that I might have a change of heart and receive the strength of the Spirit to handle the challenges of my life. I will pray, pray, pray–for him, and for myself.
The Most Important Resolution I Can Make
Resolutions that require the cooperation of others should not by on my list. I should also avoid the determination to push ahead events for which the Lord may have a different timetable. Elder Neal A. Maxwell said, “The issue for us is trusting God enough to trust also His timing. If we can truly believe He has our welfare at heart, may we not let His plans unfold as He thinks best? The same is true with the second coming and with all those matters wherein our faith needs to include faith in the Lord’s timing for us personally, not just in His overall plans and purposes.” (Even As I Am, 1982, p. 93)
Elder Oaks tells me in a few sentences the wisest New Year’s resolution I can make:
“Wise are those who make this commitment: I will put the Lord first in my life, and I will keep His commandments. The performance of that commitment is within everyone’s control. We can fulfill that commitment without regard to what others decide to do, and that commitment will anchor us no matter what timing the Lord directs for the most important events in our lives. . . . If we have faith in God and if we are committed to the fundamentals of keeping His commandments and putting Him first in our lives, we do not need to plan every single event–even every important event–and we should not feel rejected or depressed if some things–even some very important things–do not happen at the time we had planned or hoped or prayed. . . . Stand ready to accept the Lord’s planning and the agency of others in matters that inevitably affect you. . . . Do your best on what is fundamental and personal and then trust in the Lord and His timing . . . Indeed, we cannot have true faith in the Lord without also having complete trust in the Lord’s will and in the Lord’s timing.” (Dallin Oaks, “Timing,” Ensign October, 2003, pp. 12-17)