January 11, 2008

Cornucopia / Cynthia Dewes

Onward and upward through trying times

Cynthia DewesWith apologies to patriotic sentiment, the following quote seems appropriate to consider at this time of year as well: “These are the times that try men’s souls.” Women’s, too. Or, for that matter, bodies of either sex.

That’s because this is the time of year—a new year—when we take stock and try to reform, lose weight, get fit, work harder, be nicer or whatever. Somehow, Jan. 1 of any year impels most of us to plan strategies for dealing with our accumulated guilt.

People use different means to achieve their goals. Some join gyms or go on diets. Some attack the cleaning of closets, drawers or garages. Some even mount

self-improvement agendas to read the classics, learn a second language or, when really desperate, consult a plastic surgeon.

Some folks wind up feeling better about themselves. Others only make themselves more miserable while upsetting everyone around them. As in, if Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.

So, a couple of months into the new year, many people seem to tire of all this stress and lose their enthusiasm for the tasks they have set for themselves. They skip a workout or sneak a few cookies, shove the remaining clutter into a storage room or put War and Peace on a higher shelf. This is where the “trying times” part comes in.

It’s human nature to lose heart when we are attempting something outside of our usual comfortable routine or something we think is hard or distasteful. So it’s easy for us to rationalize our way out of the New Year’s resolutions, even if that adds a bit to our total guilt tally.

We figure we’ll finish this next month, we’ll wait until better weather or we’ll get through Grandma’s birthday and next week’s houseguests before continuing the plan. And soon, sometimes sooner than later, we’re back in the groove of snapping at people or snarfing down Big Macs every day. We are spending too much time on the computer and too little time listening to Junior when he gets home from school. As usual.

Well, maybe we should remember Christmas, that wonderful holy day we just celebrated. Not that we should remember the time of gifts and eggnog and partying, but rather the Christmas of Christ entering our world as a redemptive gift from our loving God. After all, The Twelve Days are still in recent memory.

Christmas beats human resolutions every time as the answer to all that accumulated guilt. It’s The Way we can actually improve ourselves and our lives, namely by trusting in the grace of God as we try to do God’s will. Christ’s coming brings not only the hope of redemption, but also the authority to do what we know is good and right.

Unfortunately, we live in a material world managed by humans who are prone to human error. We are forced to suffer war, disease, cruelty and many other sorrows caused mainly by mistaken human choices. Even when we “play by the rules,” we may experience grief or pain or desperation. If some hardship doesn’t enter our lives, we are probably not really living.

But, if we remember God’s promises in Christ, we know that we can trust the impulses for justice and goodness which we all have. These may conflict with selfish “needs” and desires, some fostered by false cultural values, but when they do we will have the strength of Christmas to deny them. Happy New Year, indeed.

(Cynthia Dewes, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.) †

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