As we embark on a New Year, I find myself customarily cautious. The New Year, of course, is hugely emblematic of hopeful beginnings, revised behaviors, fresh outlooks, and personal commitments. Yet, because renewal is so difficult to achieve, I find myself always a bit wary of the New Year talk of resolutions, whose results, like fad diets, tend to be neither sustainable nor genuinely transformative. I have the same feeling, incidentally, after I get my teeth cleaned or get a car wash in the winter in Cleveland.
I live with hope and the possibility of change in my heart, but I am concerned about the effect of boundless messaging about insufficiency and inadequacy that pervades the culture. We learn over and again that we weigh too much; don’t use our time well enough; invest or use our money unwisely; need a better job; don’t cook healthfully enough; visit the gym too infrequently; aren’t nice enough; spend too little time with our kids; need better things and clearer skin; do too little; do too much; and on and on. At least for me, socially ritualized self-critique of this sort reflects a profound narcissistic spirituality of self-help and (often failed attempts at) self-improvement. Such spirituality reinforces the self-absorption and lack of true community that lead us into individualism and over-consumption in the first place.
This year, as I embark on the New Year, I am especially aware of many things I cannot change. For one, I am watching a good friend die, and there is no longer anything that anyone can do about it. I am watching my mother’s mobility decrease from a knee injury year’s ago. I am watching my children get older, and I hear surprising things that come from them from the environments they inhabit beyond the walls of my home. I learn more acutely what I already know, namely, that they will and must live in a world much larger than my own invention. I am watching my own self deepen into the reality of multi-generational familial responsibilities, as I grapple with what it takes to run a home, care for children, and meet others’ basic needs. I know I am not alone. I read student papers in my adult education class over the break, and the weight of their realities is tremendous. How tyrannical it seems to insist that we add to these realities of ours some kind of burden of change between 11:59 and 12:01!
I have come to believe that much, probably all, of the spiritual life that leads to redemption (or liberation or salvation… whatever we wish to call it), is about reconciliation with that which one cannot change, with what is imperfect, with what we would have as otherwise. There is an enormous need for us to release control over life itself and to forgive ourselves the relative impotence we experience in the face of it all. In an even greater leap, somewhere along the way we must also forgive or reconcile with God for the gaping distances between that which is and that for which we hope.
I eschew welcoming the New Year as a series of televised media extravaganzas that make me feel somehow bad-about-myself-yet-wildly-energized-about- how-much-better-I-can-be (especially if I use the right products). Rather, the New Year might more helpfully be greeted as a gentle continuation, one next persistent push in the sequence of the tide’s rush against the shore. It is just another moment in a larger history that carries on independently of us. We cannot change the seascape; we cannot outrun it; the tide will bring in all sorts of beautiful things that we did not make and also dangerous things that we cannot sidestep. It will be what it will be.
What we can do is notice it better. For my part, I can quietly adjust my perspective near and far, and then perhaps I might also quietly find my values realigning with my more intentional vision. I might thereby experience the beginnings of a soft metanoia toward more mindful creatureliness. And, here, I might also begin to become the proverbial change, within my limited spheres of influence, that I wish to see in the world.
Constructive agency must begin in the prayerful appreciation of limited creaturely life. It is only then, I suspect, that one might have a chance at sustainable, transformational being in oneself, in relationship to others, and in the world. It begins, however, with letting go of Luciferian ambitions for a more prefect world of our own design. My New Year’s meditation, then, is this: I will try to accept being a human creature: a finite, earth-dependent, truly human animal. I will try to understand the balance between what I can and should do as a responsible, moral being on the one hand and where aspiration becomes an idolatry of dominion on the other. I will try to understand limitation as its own sort of revealing grace and eject constructions of fall and punishment that badly theologize what is mere creaturely disappointment at not being God. I will try in earnest to understand and to live in these words:
“Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink, about your body; or what you will wear… Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet… not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. Who…by worrying can add a single hour to his life?… Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” (Matt. 6: 25-34)
Natalie Kertes Weaver, Ph.D., is Chair and Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Ursuline College in Pepper Pike, Ohio. Natalie’s academic books include: Marriage and Family: A Christian Theological Foundation (Anselm, 2009); Christian Thought and Practice: A Primer (Anselm, 2012); and The Theology of Suffering and Death: An Introduction for Caregivers (Routledge, 2013). Natalie is currently writing Made in the Image of God: Intersex and the Revisioning of Theological Anthropology (Wipf & Stock, 2014). Natalie has also authored two art books: Interior Design: Rooms of a Half-Life and Baby’s First Latin. Natalie’s areas of interest and expertise include: feminist theology; theology of suffering; theology of the family; religion and violence; and (inter)sex and theology. Natalie is a married mother of two sons, Valentine and Nathan. For pleasure, Natalie studies classical Hebrew, poetry, piano, and voice.