Today is New Year’s Day, the first day of January 2016. Curious about New Year’s resolutions, I did a quick Google search to get some statistics. According to Details, 45% of Americans are in the habit of making New Year’s resolutions. The majority of these, 73%, give up on their goal before reaching it. 1 in 3 don’t even make it past January before throwing in the towel, and 38% of Americans opt out of making any resolution in the first place.
Put me in that 38%.
I absolutely hate making specific commitments I don’t feel confident I’ll be able to keep. Honesty and integrity are crucial not only to trusting others and being trusted by them, but also to being able to respect myself. If you resolve to start exercising three days a week every week for the next year and make good on that commitment, I tip my hat to you. That just isn’t me.
Anyone who knows me very well at all or has worked closely with me – on this very blog, for instance – is well-aware that making specific plans and setting deadlines is not my strong-suit. “Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans” – the famous John Lennon quote could almost be my life’s motto.
Reflect on the Old Year Before Making New Year’s Resolutions
Even though New Year’s resolutions are very much not my thing, taking a thoughtful look back at the end of a year very much is. I love reflecting on the past, whether considering my own personal history, or studying those of famous figures, empires, and mankind in general.
In light of that love for reflection, this morning I was looking through Facebook photos to remind myself of some of the highlights of 2015. It’s overwhelming even thinking about how whirlwind busy this year was. In an effort to mentally process it all, I’m writing out a full summary of the big events. Deaths and births, uncertainty in my industry and career, all or some of us making multiple treks across America, seeing extended family move into and out of our area, starting a blog – all of these and more impacted the past year, obviously, but my thinking about them will also surely influence the years to come. I want to be sure I am thinking rightly about them before getting too much further down the road.
The word count is up to 1805, and that’s only through September. My detailed summary isn’t finished yet, but I won’t be publishing it once it is. Looking back on a year of big ups and downs, triumphs and failures, I’m trying to be incredibly candid with myself about the events that most provoked my sadness, anger, fear, self-doubt, and joy. Reflecting on my mistakes and miscalculations, the hardships and challenges we faced, and some difficult decisions that had to be made – it’s an intensely personal and incredibly vulnerable process. If you’ve ever tried something similar, you know that it was made only more difficult when every detail mentioned or choice of wording caused your mind to halt and your heart to skip a beat at what this or that friend or family member might think of you if they ever read it.
The bottom line is that I want to learn from and understand better what happened in the past so as to understand more rightly the present, and to prepare myself to make better decisions in the future. Even though I’m not going to publish the detailed summary, I’d like to share with you some of the general highlights of what has occurred to me as I went through this process, and some of the general themes and patterns I noticed about our lives this past year.
First Off, The Only Constant is Change
The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus is famous for his concept of Logos, and for sayings like “Everything changes and nothing stands still,” and the more poetic “You could not step twice into the same river.”
There were tricky situations and pleasant surprises in 2015, as well as some very great disappointments. There were many, many changes of all stripes. Some of these changes were very good and made us very happy – the expectation and then birth of our fifth son, Enoch Theophilus, for example, greatly pleased us and many others. Other changes were pretty lousy, to be honest with you, and made us exceedingly uncomfortable – like the death of my Uncle Lloyd Slabach and my wife’s Grandma Duff in the earlier part of the year. There were silver linings to even the darkest clouds, however, as the departure of Uncle Lloyd and Grandma Duff brought family and friends from all over America back together again briefly, gathering to remember our loved ones and bid them farewell.
“Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. Yahweh gave, and Yahweh has taken away; blessed be the name of Yahweh.”
The jury is still out on the vast majority of changes that took place, and may be for quite some time. Whether they really were so great or terrible as they seemed in the moment, who but God can tell? Even those changes we took as triumphs or failures in the moment may turn out to be quite different in the long-run from what we first thought.
We met new people in 2015, even as we said goodbye to others. Some new friendships were formed and strengthened, and some folks I had considered friends moved closer to the status of acquaintance or even strangers in my mind as I realized I did not really know or understand them as well as I had thought. This was a difficult process for me. It probably is for everyone else too. But I like to think I know what I know and understand the people around me.
Apparently that’s the thing of it. People change too. Just as I am growing and changing and moving about, making decisions about who I will continue or cease to be – whether to persist in old ways, seek new ones, or hybridize between the old and new – so also are all these other people, constantly and behind the scenes. We can’t possibly anticipate or know all the ways other people are changing and growing or will in the future, especially when months and years pass between any deep or meaningful interactions with them.
The important thing must be to anticipate less precisely how people, and circumstances for that matter, will change, and more generally that they can be relied on to change somehow.
Plans Are Useless, Planning Is Indispensable
One of my favorite quotes of all time comes from Supreme Commander of Allied Forces during World War II, 34th President Dwight D. Eisenhower:
“In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”
President Eisenhower’s quote on plans and planning has been on my mind for several years now, and I’ve given a lot of thought to what he meant by it. What he seems to have been saying is that – especially in relation to waging war and fighting battles, but I think in relation to the rest of life as well – events rarely unfold as you expect them to. Your specific plans need to be flexible enough to account for that. Yet the process of planning requires assessing the situation. You need to understand what has happened and is happening if you’re going to come up with realistic scenarios of what to expect in the future. Planning also necessitates establishing goals and deciding not only what you want, but also how what you want can be obtained or achieved.
In The 33 Strategies of War by Robert Greene, the author discusses Germany’s Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, nicknamed “the Desert Fox.” Rommel was a brilliant tactician who constantly and voraciously consumed scouting reports and information from the battlefield, developing as a result what the Germans call “Fingerspitzengefuhl” – or “finger-tip feel” – a sort of honed gut-feeling and intuition about what subtle changes mean is going on behind the scenes, the ability to make reliable inferences about what you don’t know based on what you do know. Because of his obsession with knowing all the details of the battlefield, he was adept at making snap decisions to exploit his enemy’s weaknesses and seize the upper hand. For the brilliance and prowess Rommel repeatedly proved on the battlefield, he earned the respect and admiration of not only his own troops, but also of his enemies.
I mention this because it ties in very neatly with Eisenhower’s saying about plans and planning. “I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” You have to plan for change. Expect it. Embrace it. And pay attention to new developments even as you reflect on how they relate to those that have passed. As a reminder of these two interrelated principles of strategic thinking, I printed and taped Eisenhower’s quote to my desk at work, and have “Fingerspitzengefuhl” written in permanent marker on the underside brim of my hardhat.
What Does Victory Look Like?
Despite the personal aversion to making specific plans I’ve already confessed to you, what I am very much inclined toward is reflecting on present and past circumstances, looking for patterns, extracting themes from connected events and circumstances. I love asking questions like:
- Does it work?
- If it does work, how and why does it work?
- If it stops working in the future, how will we repair it again?
- If it doesn’t work as well as we need it to, how do we make it work better?
Underlying all these questions is at least one assumption. We have to have some goal and desire in mind, even if it is unclear or vague. We can’t know whether we’re succeeding if we have no idea what success looks like, what we should aim and shoot for, and what we will be pleased or content with should it come to pass.
Do we know what we want? If not, let’s figure that out.
Do we know what God wants? We have to search the Scriptures diligently to discover this, ask God with faith and not doubting for the wisdom to understand what His will is for our lives, and embrace that wholeheartedly when He blesses us with it.
In light of God’s Word and His will, should we want what we want? Is it good? Is it wise? Is it reasonable? If not, let’s pray for God’s grace to change our hearts and the desires of them to what they should be.
Once we’ve progressed through these steps as followers of Christ, saying as Jesus did “Not my will, but yours be done,” we must prioritize what we want from greatest to least importance. And finally we must consider what will be needed to achieve or acquire what we want.
Good Reflection Leads to Better New Year’s Resolutions
If you’ve made New Year’s resolutions for 2016 to get healthier, more responsible, and more faithful in running the race set before you, I wholeheartedly wish you the best of luck. Though making specific plans and setting deadlines for myself is not my cup of tea any more than literally running is, I respect and admire people who both enjoy such and work hard to get good at it. Someday I’d like to develop the self-discipline necessary to follow their example.
Maybe you’ve already made a resolution, or you’re still in the process of trying to come up with one. Perhaps you’re like me, among the 38% of Americans who don’t follow that tradition. In any event, whatever new plans you are or are not entering this New Year with, I’d like to leave you with a brief word of advice: Taking an honest look back on 2015 is probably better than making an insincere or unrealistic commitment for 2016.
If you’re going to make a resolution, I would encourage you to first spend time in careful reflection, prayer, and consideration of the year that just passed – the good times, the not-so-good, and the ones on which the jury is still out. None but God knows what tomorrow will bring, after all. But if we were paying attention, we at least know what happened yesterday. By God’s grace, with wisdom and understanding, we’ll be readier for whatever comes tomorrow.