January 04, 2014

New Year's resolutions: It's OK for "you" to fail

Great piece here from the New York Times' "The Stone" series of online op-eds devoted to matters philosophical, "In Praise of Failure."

The piece isn't primarily about failure and New Year's resolutions, to which I will get in a minute. It's about accepting, even embracing, the possibility of failure in general. And, it's NOT about embracing failure from some New Age "positivity" point of view, either.

Costica Bradatan has three main points:
1. Failure allows us to see our existence in its naked condition. 

(F)ailure also possesses a distinct therapeutic function. ... We insatiably devour other species, denude the planet of life and fill it with trash. Failure could be a medicine against such arrogance and hubris, as it often brings humility. 

2. Our capacity to fail is essential to what we are. 

Ultimately, our capacity to fail makes us what we are; our being as essentially failing creatures lies at the root of any aspiration. 

3. We are designed to fail.

No matter how successful our lives turn out to be, how smart, industrious or diligent we are, the same end awaits us all: “biological failure.” ...

A better model (for how to face failure) may be Ingmar Bergman’s Antonius Block, from the film “The Seventh Seal.”   
Read the whole thing, though, not just that summary.

And,  now, relating this to New Year's resolutions, to a newspaper column I recently did, and why "you" is in scare quotes.


Why do so many of us make New Year's resolutions only to break them? In fact, why do so many of us continue to make them, based on the likelihood that we broke similar ones in the past and expect ourselves to break the new ones, often quickly, in the future?
It’s pretty simple, if you will: That may not be “all of us” making those resolutions.
Modern philosophy of mind and psychology talk about things like “subselves.” In the Christian Bible, Paul said, “What I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” Sounds like a bit of the same thing. Another hallowed Christian leader, Saint Augustine, famously prayed, "Lord, grant me chastity, but not yet."

Some part of ourselves, often, really doesn’t want to fulfill these regulations. I think that’s even more the case if they’re phrased in a “negative” way, like promising to “stop” or “quit” something rather than “start” something. 
Some part of us does want to quit, but another part doesn’t. And, so, we are of two minds. Or three, when we start feeling guilty about actual failure, or potential failure before it happens. Or four, if we’re conditioned to somehow, perversely, like feeling guilty, or at least anxious.
Beyond that, nature abhors a vacuum. Including a mental one.
So, promising to quit a bad habit is often doomed to failure if we don’t also promise to replace it with a good one. Part of the trick is finding the right good habit related to that.
Or, if not to directly replace it, to reward yourself in some other way. And that’s because, besides nature abhorring a mental vacuum, our inner selves don’t like being scolded, lectured, or otherwise made to have no fun. And, to the degree the "subselves" idea has truth behind it, some part of our selves is a young child, ready to rebel against such lecturing and scolding.

That said, why do so many of us, or "us," make these resolutions in the first place?
In part, some portion of our self believes we do legitimately need to make a change. On things like quitting drinking or smoking, or other health-related matters, that belief may be absolutely correct.
But, there may be another part of ourselves that is afraid of failing to achieve that change.  And, here’s where another phrase, that isn’t necessarily a cliché, comes into play — “self-fulfilling prophecy.”
Sometimes, below the level of full consciousness, we move almost inexorably toward some result we expect to happen, or even want to happen, but don’t want to consciously discuss.

Related to this is the idea that free will, or "free will," since we're still in the Early Bronze Age on cognitive science, is, as a part of consciousness being "embodied cognition," a social phenomenon. In other words, "free will" is influenced by our interactions with our environment. 
That said, not all New Year’s resolutions are ones that are necessary. 
Maybe we’ve decided to resolve to be kinder to friends, neighbors, coworkers or other family members. We’re not going to have a heart attack or cirrhosis of the liver if we don’t follow through on that one, though.
But, the resolution itself may not be fully our own idea. Maybe it’s something we think we “should” do. Or, more to the point, it’s something that somebody else thinks we “should” do.
In this case, some inner part of our selves drags our feet, passively resists, or otherwise decides not to go along with the program. And soon enough, the resolution fails.
So, to sum up?
The way I see it is that, if you want a resolution to succeed, it should be one you want to do, that you can fully get yourself behind, that you can reward yourself for achieving, and where you can not only change something by keeping the resolution but replace it with something better.
And, if not?
To riff off what Hawkeye Pierce said on an episode of M*A*S*H many a year ago, make a resolution to not make more resolutions!

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