“For not to go only, but to enter there, was naught else but to will to go, but to will it resolutely and thoroughly; not to stagger and sway about this way and that, a changeable and half-wounded will, wrestling, with one part falling as another rose.
The mind commands the mind to will, and yet, though it be itself, it obeys not. Whence this monstrous thing? and why is it? I repeat, it commands itself to will, and would not give the command unless it willed; yet is not that done which it commands. But it wills not entirely; therefore it commands not entirely.”
Augustine of Hippo. Confessions
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At the center of the human drama is our free will. Perhaps no one has ever experienced this and expressed it as dramatically as Augustine of Hippo. At the end of the day, where our will is, there is where we are.
But our will is divided. We want to be a certain kind of person and to live a certain kind of life; yet then again, we only want it so much. As Augustine says, we have a changeable and half-wounded will. So we tend to flop around.
There are two truths behind the practice of New Year’s resolutions. First, the temporal structure of our lives lends itself to new beginnings. Second, new beginnings in becoming the person we want to be are always in order, again and again. In other words, I need to strengthen my will by taking concrete steps really to enact it.
I wonder whether the negativity with which we can view New Year’s resolutions is a subtle pride, or an unwillingness to accept these two truths—both of which are humbling. Perhaps we’ve become jaded by the reality of the changeability of the human will—others’ and ours.
But the other side of the scandalous nature of the human will is precisely the amazing and consoling truth that we can always begin again. And to begin again–especially with a concrete plan–is in reality to be already part-way to where we want to be.
Augustine of Hippo (354-430 A.D.) was one of the greatest minds and most influential writers in early Christianity. In addition to his Confessions, the landmark autobiography in which he details his conversion from vanity and sexual immorality, he wrote numerous works in defense and exposition of his late-found faith.
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