By: Sandy DeTeresa, Catholic Gators Campus Minister
It’s 2018. Everyone is either posting their “new year, new me” statuses and making New Year’s resolutions, or making fun of New Year’s resolutions and the fact that so many people make them and don’t stick to them. Personally, I am both of these people this year: the idealist and the cynic. I look at this New Year as a new start, a chance to do all the things I have always said I was going to do: exercise more often, stop eating sugar, spend hours and hours in prayer, not watch as much Netflix, save more, stick to my budget, etc. I also look at New Year’s with the knowledge of past New Year’s: resolutions that didn’t even last a week, much less a month. I remember all the times I’ve said I was going to make all of these really good, awesome changes, only to remember how after eating healthy for two days I couldn’t help but feast on cupcakes at a friend’s birthday. I see the pattern, I know the pattern, I live the pattern. I go to bed thinking “tomorrow, I’m changing my life” and wake up thinking “ugh, not today.” After a lot of reflection, I may have finally found the problem.
These changes I want to make, they are not bad changes. It’s why I idealize them and want to make them so badly, they are good. They are big changes though. I go from struggling to pray a rosary once a week to wanting to pray it once a day. I want to go from not running at all to running a 5k in a week. I want to go from drinking 2-4 coffees a day to drinking no caffeine at all (what, crazy, right?). I want to go from living my life with a chaotic schedule that I don’t balance very well, poor budgeting, and a flaky prayer life, to having all of that perfected overnight. And I resolve to fix these all the time: at the beginning of the year, the beginning of the month, at the beginning of the week. Each beginning, I find myself resolving anew to fix the broken. But some of this broken is going to take more than a day to fix. And trying to fix it all at once… well, that’s impossible.
In all of these things I want to fix, there is one constant behind them: I don’t always have the willpower to make these changes. I want to be able to come in and not need coffee to get through the day without giving someone the stank eye. I want to be able to run a half marathon in a month. I want to be able to sit in the church for holy hours and not fall asleep on a regular basis or find myself checking my email. But when the time comes, these choices are really difficult, especially all at once. I have not chosen to be faithful in the small things, so how can I be faithful in the big things? If I can’t refrain from eating one cookie after having two, how can I refrain from eating any sugar at all? If I don’t even schedule in prayer time, how can I expect the time I spend with Jesus to be fruitful if it is usually an afterthought after a hectic day when I just want to decompress and watch Netflix? I do not have the strength to make these big changes…yet, but I can do the work to get that strong.
After venting numerous times to a close friend about this, she used the example of exercise to help me understand the changes I need to make versus the changes I want to make but that are too big to make all at once. She calls it “spiritual bicep curls.” When you start working out, you don’t start bicep curling with 50-lb weights (at least, I don’t). You start small, maybe 10-lb weights. And after a few sessions of using 10-lb weights, you up the weight by maybe 5 lbs. After weeks of slowly upping the weight, of making small changes, you’ve reached your goal of 50 lbs. And what’s more, you have built up slowly to that big change, which is now a permanent change because you have the strength to continue using 50-lb weights.
So, we have to start small. Make a list of small things for different areas in your life. Each year, I ask retreat leaders I work with to make a self-care plan. In this plan, they look at five areas of their life, and come up with no more than three small ways they are going to keep the balance or make changes in these areas. And the few things they put on that list? They need to be small choices. Most of the things on that list are ways to maintain balance, and no more than one thing for each area is a change. That way, they are not making too many changes all at once and setting themselves up for burn out.
I ask them to look at their spiritual life, their academic life, their physical health, their mental health, and their social life. They find the weaknesses in those areas and identify the way(s) in which they want to grow. I ask the questions: when you are stressed, what is the first thing to go in each of those areas? And how do you want to grow in those areas? For some people, with their physical health, it’s sleep that they neglect, for others, it’s exercise. In the spiritual life, for one person, they might want to spend more time in adoration, while for another, they want to increase their Mass attendance. For each person, it is different. Make a list of these small ways to maintain balance, and if you want, add one small change. Here are some examples of things I have seen others put on that list:
Spiritual life: Attend regular confession, find a spiritual director, go to daily Mass, read the Bible daily, add an extra holy hour to your week, pray the rosary one more time a week than normal
Academic life: Spend two hours a day studying instead of cramming before exams, form a study group, find a tutor
Physical health: Exercise three times a week, only eat dessert on Sundays and feast days, get at least 6 hours of sleep each night.
Mental health: Only watch one episode of Netflix a day, spend one day a week without your phone, take one day a month completely off from work, extracurriculars and school.
Social life: Call a friend and have a real conversation once a week, spend time with at least one friend outside of a studying/work/extracurricular setting once a week, sign up for a leisure class
I know what you’re thinking, it’s my frustration too: “Okay, that’s great, but won’t making these tiny changes over such a long amount of time take such a long amount of time?” Well, yes and no. You won’t necessarily see changes overnight. You might still fall asleep halfway through a rosary or keep pressing the play button on that next episode of Netflix. But you started. You didn’t press play after that episode you watched yesterday. And you won’t after you watch one tomorrow. You only checked your email once in the five holy hours you did this week. These are small steps, but after a while, the change will be more noticeable. Instead of wasting months or “restarting” your big resolutions and never accomplishing them, you will be much closer to accomplishing them after taking the first ten steps to get there. By making small changes now, at the end of 2018, you might just have made the big changes you were hoping for.