What Do You Really Want? (New Year's Resolutions)

Chalice lighting

We gather today in the last hours of an old year
Looking back over the past
And peering forward as we imagine what may be to come
By the light of this flame, may you be guided this year on a path
Toward meaning
Toward connection
Toward happiness
Toward a bright new tomorrow

Reading: Problem, by George Bilgere

Jerry is at his usual table this morning
with his cup of coffee and his laptop,
working on his science fiction/fantasy novel.
In every café in America
men and women are hard at work
on their science fiction/fantasy novels.
Perhaps you are one of them. If so,
I salute you; it's a very competitive field.
Forty years, says Jerry, I sold life insurance.
Now I can do what I really want to do.
The planet where his story takes place
has three suns, and the problem he's working on
is how do the aliens there tell time.
I suggest having everyone wear three watches,
which Jerry doesn't think is funny.
This is a serious novel, he's taking it seriously,
and he wants to get everything just right.
Forty years I sold life insurance, he says.
Now I can do what I really want to do.

Reading: The Breeze at Dawn, by Rumi

The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.
Don’t go back to sleep.
You must ask for what you really want.
Don’t go back to sleep.
People are going back and forth across the door sill
Where the two worlds touch.
The door is round and open.
Don’t go back to sleep.

Message by Rev Andy Pakula

2017 has been a strange and in many ways challenging year. I hope it’s also been a good year for many of you - that you found happiness and satisfaction over the past twelve months. I know that many of us have found 2017 also a very frightening and worrying year. So much seems to have headed off in a bad direction. Well, whether you loved it or hated it or a bit of both, 2017 is almost over. There are only 12 hours and a few minutes left in this year and then - boom - it will be 2018.

We all know, of course, that there is nothing magical about the change of years. It’s just an arbitrary time. Yes - the earth takes one year to orbit the sun - but there’s no line in space that says ‘start here’ or a tape across the earth’s path with giant letters saying ‘finish line'. If you want to be really dissenting, you could start your year at some other time and be out of sync with the rest of us. Or you could forget about using the earth’s orbit as your standard. Use Mercury’s very speedy orbit for example - you’ll be able to celebrate your birthday four times as often. ‘It’s my birthday! Presents please’. Or go with Mars’ orbit. It’s twice as long as the Earth’s. I’m thinking of doing that and revising my recent birthday to be my thirtieth.

Let’s conform though, at least for the moment, and see the calendar change as an important transition. Transitions are valuable. They prompt us to look forward and back. They give us a point in time where we can psychologically leave hard times behind and bring an optimism to the time ahead.

We celebrate the New Year with a whole range of customs and traditions. There are fireworks. There are midnight countdowns and toasts. We might sing Auld Lang Syne. Some towns have fire festivals. In one, men balance barrels on their heads and walk around town. Oh - did I mention the barrels are full of flaming tar? There’s first footing. In Wales, you might make Calennigs and give them to others for good luck. How about Yorkshire where the last thing you should say in the old year is black rabbits, black rabbits, black rabbits and then, the first thing to say in the new year is white rabbits, white rabbits, white rabbits.

The tradition that I’m particularly thinking of today though is the making of New Year’s resolutions. Any transition can be prompt you to try to make a change in your life: the start of a new year, a new job, finishing education, starting education, moving to a new place, recovery from an illness, and so on. We do it because there is inevitably something we’d like to change about how we live our lives. We feel like there’s something we could be doing differently that would make our lives better somehow. Even though we know that most New Year’s resolutions don’t last, it’s very tempting to go ahead anyway. We recognise that we get into patterns and ruts and fail to do the things we should do but never seem to get around to.

There are a lot of things you probably think you should do. The most common resolutions have to do with health, so you might feel you should eat better, exercise more, watch less television, or drink or smoke less. You might have some more civic-minded resolutions, like eating more ethically, doing more volunteering, or reducing your carbon footprint. One thing that might be missing is whether these are ‘should’ resolutions or ‘want’ resolutions. A very good place to start is to ask ‘what do I want?’ ‘What do I really want?’ And ‘what do I want?’ is a much harder question than it may seem.

Several weeks ago, I shared some words from Erich Fromm’s classic book, Escape from Freedom. They speak clearly to this point. I’ve changed the pronouns to make it more inclusive. Here they are again:

"Modern people live under the illusion that they know what they want, but they actually want what they are supposed to want. To know what one really wants is not comparatively easy, as most people think, but one of the most difficult problems any human being has to solve. It is a task we frantically try to avoid by accepting ready-made goals as though they were our own."

Many of us are following paths blindly. These are the paths that have come down to us from family or culture or community as what we are supposed to do. Our heads are filled with desires shaped by what we are supposed to want. Once we have embarked on these externally-directed paths, we not only accept the ‘shoulds’ that go with them. We actually start to see them as ‘wants’ as we rationalise our direction and struggle to make it seem like it fits with what we really want.

The words we heard earlier from Rumi suggest that we are too often sleepwalking through our lives, ignorant of realities we could so easily see if we just opened our eyes:
'The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.
Don’t go back to sleep.
You must ask for what you really want.
Don’t go back to sleep.'

What happens if we wake up and ask what we really want? One hazard is we may judge our answers and find them unacceptable and quickly go back to sleep. Your wants may be selfish - they should be. We are human beings. We are not saints. Remember also that some of the people who helped the world move forward the most were driven by what we might call selfish motives: a desire for respect or fame or a truly purposeful, meaningful life. Even if you eventually choose to seek something other than what you want, you still need to know what you want. Knowing your deepest desire gives you control and prevents you from being sabotaged by truths you fail to acknowledge.

As you think about what you truly want, you will inevitably start at some want that points to another want. You may want to lose a stone, but why? To be healthier? To be more appealing? So your clothes fit better? And then you can ask why again. Why do you want to be healthier? What will that do for you? Why is it important? What deeper want does that point to?

Here’s a story:

An American tourist was visiting a small Mexican coastal village.  He was standing at the pier when a small boat arrived at the dock with one fisherman aboard.  Inside the small boat were several large, beautiful yellowfin tuna.  The tourist complimented the fisherman on the quality of these fabulous fish and asked how long it took to catch them. 'Oh, only a short time' replied the Mexican. The tourist asked, “why didn’t you stay out longer then and catch more fish?” The fisherman replied “with these fish, I have more than enough to support my family’s needs.'' “Well, then, what do you do with the rest of your time?” asked the American. The Mexican fisherman said, "I sleep late, play with my children, take a siesta with my wife, stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine and play the guitar with my friends. I have a full and busy life."

The tourist scoffed, “I can help you” he said. “You should spend more time fishing; and with the proceeds, buy a bigger boat: With the proceeds from the bigger boat you could buy several boats. Eventually, you would have a fleet of fishing boats. Instead of selling your catch to a middleman you would sell directly to the processor; eventually opening your own cannery. You would control the product, processing and distribution. You could leave this small coastal fishing village and move to Mexico City, then Los Angeles and eventually New York where you could run your ever-expanding enterprise.”

The Mexican fisherman asked, "Well, how long will this all take?" The tourist replied, “15 to 20 years.” ''And what then?” asked the Mexican. The tourist laughed and said, "That's the best part. When the time is right you would sell your company stock to the public and become very rich, you would make millions.” “Millions?...Then what?” The American said, “Why, then you would retire! Move to a small coastal fishing village where you would sleep late, play with your kids, take a siesta with your wife, stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play your guitar with your friends.”

The tourist was putting ‘shoulds’ on the fisherman - imagining a path of actions for a man who already had what he truly wanted. You should want your business to be successful. Why? So you can get a bigger boat? Why? So you can have a fleet of boats. Why? So you can open a cannery. Why? So you can be wealthy. Why? So you can live the good life… In the fisherman’s place, the American tourist would focus on the immediate wants and never notice that his ultimate want - a leisurely life with family and friends - could be achieved in a much simpler way. The way the fisherman was already living.

Like ‘catching more fish’, often what we think we want is just a clue that points toward what we really want. If we keep asking ‘why?’ we may be able to get closer and closer to identifying what we actually want. And when we do, we can consider whether the path we are taking is, in fact, the best way for us to achieve what we truly want.

What do you really really really want? Once you can answer that question, you will gain a better understanding of yourself and your choices. And when you do, then create that New Year’s resolution - the one that leads you in the right direction toward your heart’s desire.

Closing Words

As the old year draws to a close
May you leave behind the ways that do not serve you
The suffering that holds you down
And the doubts and fears that keep you from reaching forward
May your New Year be bright and full of growth
May it lead you toward your heart’s desire