Change is slow. I should specify—lasting change is slow. Perhaps you know that already, or mayhaps like me it’s a reality you keep forgetting. I came into 2019 with big ideas about all I would have figured out and accomplished by the time 2020 rolled around. I was going to have Jesus and what it means to follow him, etc down pat. I was going to have made unprecedented strides in my career and personal life. I was going to have figured out the optimal way to date, more specifically date as a slightly feral farm child and as a Christian. I wanted to be realistic though, I didn’t expect to have my book published this year… but I did plan to land my top choice agent and at least have a book deal in the works.
If you know anything about goal setting, you might have noticed that my method is 1000% not optimal. If you use the SMART template, they should be Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-Based. Well, they met a couple of those criteria. But none were what one might call attainable. In previous years, my M.O. would normally be to wallow a bit, feel like a failure, and resolve to work harder next year. This year things are different.
Let’s take the example of dating. At the outset of 2019, I resolved to go on a date with someone who wasn’t a sociopath, a seemingly SMART goal. Having been on exactly one date in the previous decade (not an exaggeration), I was determined to get it together. I joined a dating app, then a second. I went on four first dates and one second date. One was horrendous, but the rest were pretty ok. I went in with the ambition to be less intimidated by the process of dating, and mayhaps learn stuff about myself, about my preferences, and about dating… really nailing the “specific” mandate of goal setting. Looking back, I did learn some things, but certainly not what I was expecting. And I can’t say that I achieved anything measurable. So what was the point?
If you’re on dating apps, or you’ve done speed dating, or been set up by friends, you might be asking yourself a similar question. Or mayhaps you were expecting to make major progress in your career and it feels like you stalled instead. Or you were hoping to have more answers than questions at this point in your life. Maybe you feel like you’ve been working exceptionally hard and you don’t have much to show for it.
In her piece for The New Yorker last year, Alexandra Schwartz wrote,
In our current era of non-stop technological innovation, fuzzy wishful thinking has yielded to the hard doctrine of personal optimization… It’s no longer enough to imagine our way to a better state of body or mind. We must now chart our progress, count our steps, log our sleep rhythms, tweak our diets, record our negative thoughts—then analyze the data, recalibrate, and repeat.
Perhaps it’s because we are more aware than ever of all the progress the people we surround ourselves with (mostly digitally) seem to be making. But to me, it can seem like, if I am not making measurable progress on all fronts at once, I’m getting left behind. And so I try to come up with a system, a strategy, and a formula to guarantee exponential growth that I can show to the world as proof that I, too, am doing exceptionally well. I may not be perfect, but I am implementing steps and working very hard to become as close to perfect as I can. After all, if I don’t have anything tangible to show for all my effort, then am I moving at all? Questions like this nag at me in my moments of insufficiency, impotence, and impatience. Then derp brain starts in with, You should be doing better. You should be better. You should be going faster.
I’ve become a fan of a particular passage in the Bible lately, Jeremiah 29. The Israelites have been exiled in Babylon. I’m not going to get into the minutiae of the history and the implications of that, but there are some false prophets who have been saying that they’ll be able to return to Jerusalem super soon. As is implied by the fact that they are “false” prophets, this is not accurate. In this chapter, we read the contents of a letter that Jeremiah, a for-real prophet, wrote to the exiled people. He writes that, actually, they’ll be in exile for seventy years. In this letter, God asks them to get comfy, to put down roots, to grow crops and get married and have babies. “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (7). After that, God promises to visit them and fulfill all the promises he made to them.
In reflecting on this passage in the season of New Year’s Resolutions, I’m reminded of all the impossible goals I set at the outset of 2019. I see myself in the impatience of the Israelites, in how easy it was to believe the false prophets who promised a quick jaunt in Babylon before returning to their ideal lives. It must have been discouraging on some levels to hear that they would, in fact, be there for seventy years. Not only that, they should settle in and work for the prosperity of the place to which they had been exiled. God would come and God’s promises would be fulfilled, it was just going to be a bit.
As I did not achieve my goal of figuring Jesus out this year, there’s a ton going on in this passage that I am not able to see or understand. Here’s a thing I do see. Whether we’re where we want to be or not, we are where we are. Maybe there’s some perceived ideal we’re chasing, whether it’s marriage or living somewhere better or paying off debt. Anything we want to work toward takes time, and while that time is passing, we are in neighborhoods and workplaces and schools and churches. The encouragement here is to hope for good things in the future, but not at the expense of where we are. As an obsessively forward-thinking person, I find myself so caught up in how things could be and where things are going, I forget about the life I’m living right now and the people God has placed in my life. Instead, I expect certain things for and from myself. I expect awareness of an unhealthy habit to be enough to fix it. And, like the Israelites, I expect it all to happen in 3-5 business days. Thank you, next.
I didn’t figure out how to win at dating this year, mostly because “winning” is not the point of relationships of any sort. I did, however, figure out some things about my motivations in dating. I learned that I am obsessed with achievement in every area of my life, including relationships. I learned that there isn’t a formula to figure out, but there is wisdom to consider. I learned that I like control far more than I care to admit most days. Over the course of the year, I became a more open and emotionally intelligent person, and I had honest conversations with friends about the absurdities of dating.
I can’t take a picture of that and post it. I can capture it in these words, but honestly, the growth was so gradual that it happened almost without my conscious effort. I can’t pinpoint a single moment where a flip switched and I was different. I just know that I am.
That’s one of the cool things about the God who knows how we operate and what we need. Anything that lasts takes time, and we are not capable of manhandling our way into optimization on all sides at all times. That doesn’t mean we are passive. Remember how God asked the Israelites to do stuff like build houses, etc? I think it just means that it’s way more ordinary and gradual than we, as Americans at least, expect. Whether it’s the change we want to see in ourselves, or the change we want in our relationships, our culture, our church, or our world. As you enter into this new year, by all means dream big, pray impossible prayers. But don’t underestimate the small steps and ordinary moments that make up our lives. They are the things that actually move us forward.
Picking up what I’m putting down?
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