We’re purgatively plodding through the no-man’s land between Christmas Day and New Year’s. A yearly secular tradition of bemoaning the ragged old year and looking forward to a fresh new one. All the “new-year-new-you” articles, videos, and memes are upon us. We look back and see failures of willpower. We look forward and see opportunity. And the whole internet indulges our need to get pumped for next year, helping us decide to finally lose that gut, or start a small business, or go paleo, or get a raise, or be less anxious, or to just vaguely do better as we march into January.
It’s a tradition of shooting up on a concentrated dose of what James Parker calls America’s real national religion: the mind-power gospel.
James Parker describes the anthem of the mind-power gospel seen played out on tv shows like America Ninja Warrior or Spartan: Ultimate Team Challenge. Together America chants with the contestants, “Say yes, think positive, boldly visualize, and reality will bend to your will.”
We’re addicted to the mind-power gospel. Like an opiate for the masses, we take an infatuated hit off the future improved version of ourselves. We’re tantalized by the idea that to become fabulous we need only decide to become fabulous. It numbs us to the failures of the past because this time, and I really mean it this time, we are going to do it.
And who can blame us? The idea that enough grit, sweat, and good old fashioned American hard work makes anything possible is a natural part of American exceptionalism. In America, the only thing that should separate you from your goal is determination.
This is the great nation of opportunity! This is the land of mind-power! Get to work willing yourself to success! It’s just mind over matter!
But the worship of mind-power is older than America. You can trace the roots of the good news of mind-power back to the Enlightenment. After all, you can hear the philosophers and scientists argue, our ability to think rationally and then act is the only power separating us from the animals. To be emotional is to be like the beasts. To be rational is to be like the gods. It’s our special power.
But in that moment when we look forward to the future, as Adrienne Von Speyr notices, we can’t help but look to our past. We see what we’ve planned and achieved so far and realize our willpower constantly fails us. We find last year’s resolutions in the trash, or under the guest bed, or rusting in the garage.
Speyr in “Man before God” describes the futility man feels trying to honestly take stock of the past and hunker down for the future. “He knows himself well enough to realize that he will always be an obstacle to himself because he does not remain faithful even to his best resolutions…”
“He looks around in search of heroes who made up their mind to do some great work and did not let anything keep them from it. He would gladly be such a person, with the corresponding strength, ability, and perseverance. There is no end to his wishes and yearning, but resignation debilitates him. He knows that, when all is said and done, he is no hero. Everything about him is futile.”
What should we make of the mind-power gospel then? It isn’t a path to salvation, otherwise, we would all be successful, good, healthy, and happy.
We call the weakness of our will one of the unfortunate effects of sin. Sin infiltrated the human condition at the beginning, when man first freely chose to act out of line with reality. He chose to act in a way that was not who he was. And so our willpower is weakened by this mutilation. We can and must work hard to build our willpower back up.
But at the end of the year willpower isn’t enough. We can’t use mind-power to will us into angels. We can’t trust ourselves to never falter. Something else must make up for the gaps in our mind and the failures in our will. Broken things only make more broken things.
What will save us from our weak resolution?
This blog was written by Edmund Mitchell, Director of Catechesis & Evangelization here at St. Francis of Assisi. If you’re interested in writing a blog for St. Francis of Assisi, please contact Joseph at [email protected].