New Year’s Resolutions tend to focus on new skills and habits to acquire. This is the year you’ll finally go to the gym or start taking lessons to brush up on your French or learn computer programming. But as the year begins, it can be salutary to think about what you already spend time practicing and if there are “lessons” you’d like to drop.
When I review my day in an Examen or if an action catches my attention in the moment, I sometimes like to get a better perspective on my choices by using a reframe. Instead of just asking what I should do right now, I ask what kind of habits this choice is reinforcing. Would I want to sign up for a weekly class that trained the same skills or would I find it as unappealing as private tutoring in pettiness?
That kind of reframe helped steer me away from a card game that’s become popular in my friend group. Cards Against Humanity is a MadLibs-esque matching game, where one player flips over a prompt and all the other players choose nouns from their hands that best match (or amusingly clash) with the fill in the blank. But, by design, all the prompts in Cards Against Humanity are unpleasant or crude or salacious.
The prompt cards include “In L.A. County Jail, word is you can trade 200 cigarettes for _____” “In Michael Jackson’s final moments, he thought about ____” and “I learned the hard way that you can’t cheer up a grieving friend with _____.” You can fill in those blanks using cards that range from “Dead Parents” to “My Vagina” to “The Virginia Tech Massacre.”
The game trades on the frisson of being deliberately provocative and transgressive. As you choose what card to play, there might be a surge of adrenaline as you wonder “Can I really do this?” followed by a sense of exhilaration as you make your play and, far from being scolded, your friends egg each other on to greater heights of ribaldry and offense.
When my friends asked me to join in, I politely declined. If I were a runner, I could see an advantage in being able to push my limits for endurance and exhaustion. But, I don’t want to spend time learning how to ignore my moral squeamishness. I can’t trust that that kind of callousness will stay confined to the domain of the game.
Cards Against Humanity is so over the top that it’s relatively easy for me to say no to, but there are plenty of coarsening activities and thoughts I indulge in without noticing a warning flag, or, worse, running roughshod over my misgivings. When I’m mad at a friend or acquaintance, I have a terrible habit to keep dwelling on whatever they’ve done wrong, which transitions into imagining them behaving even worse, until at last I’ve come up with a scenario where no one could reasonably expect me to make up with them. I can recognize they haven’t done anything quite that bad yet, but by the end of this kind of meditation, I’m practically wishing they’d really cross the line, so I could feel self righteous.
Once again, I find it helpful to reframe this kind of behavior in terms of taking classes or receiving training. Would I sign up for a resentment personal trainer, who would meet me twice a week to coach me through a visualization of my friend saying something truly unforgiveable? What would it mean to get better at this skill? Would I want an M.F.A. to help me develop richer images of all our other friends siding with me? Or would I be able to boast that I had cut down the time elapsed from the original slight to smug self-satisfaction once I really buckled down?
Asking myself what kind of character my behavior is instilling is me might be enough to get me to want to change, but it seldom causes the new habit to take immediately. It’s almost impossible to resolve to just stop doing something. Just like drug addicts may have trouble kicking a habit while still surrounded by the people and places they associate with getting high, your environment in the new year is still studded with cues to be callous or opportunities to share quick links about people who are (thankfully) much stupider or crueler than you. So it’s not enough to just have good intentions, you need a new habit to derail the old one.
I like to use a Hail Mary to short-circuit an indulgently uncharitable line of thought. When I notice I’m dwelling on the failings of a friend, or that I’ve already slipped into wishing them worse, I stop for about thirty seconds for the prayer. It helps because it takes me out of the rut. Instead of continuing passively in my old habit, I’d now have to make an active choice to go back to my rumination.
I like saying a prayer better than just reflecting on the fact that I shouldn’t have been being uncharitable. For one thing, it’s inviting Mary and her Son into my day to help me be better, instead of relying on my own strength. And, for another, using a punitive stimulus to break a habit—be it snapping a rubber band against your wrist or thinking, “I’m such an idiot/jerk/etc”—could condition you away from the undesirable behavior but it also might teach you to stop noticing when you’re behaving badly. After all, the punishment follows most closely on the heels of me acknowledging my fault.
So, in the New Year, while I look forward to learning new skills, I’ll put at least as much effort into scrutinizing the lessons I’m already giving myself and casting a critical eye on what fruit that training will bear.