A client of mine I’ll call Donna made her 2006 new year’s resolutions in mid-December. As part of her preparation for her annual holiday visit to her family, she wanted to set the best possible intentions. This year she would take full responsibility for her own baggage and behave impeccably. No flare-ups, sarcasm, snit-fits, no brutal judgments. She would be a veritable Saint Donna, an embodiment of love, compassion, kindness and all other virtues we associate with high-level spirituality.
Before flying home, she radiated like a marble figurine on a church altar. When I saw her in early January she looked more like a martyr in a Medieval painting. She’d been flagellating herself for a week. It seems that her resolutions worked well for the first five days of her visit, but on the sixth day she lost it. Her mother said something that triggered an old hurt, and kaplooey! Donna went off like it was the Fourth of July, not Christmas Eve.
She was mad at herself. She saw herself as a failure. A fraud. A spiritual imposter, totally undeserving of grace. If she were a fundamentalist she’d have consigned herself to hell.
It took a while for Donna to see the contradictions in her self-indictment: she was so upset at being judgmental that she was judging herself harshly; so disappointed that she hadn’t been 100% kind that she couldn’t treat herself kindly; so angry at her lack of compassion that she had no compassion for herself. Such are the traps of trying to be all good all the time.
The virtues that every culture and tradition hold up as ideal—which we can summarize with the term “goodness”—are both the fruits of the spirit and a barometer of spiritual development. They’re fruits in that they tend to ripen more fully as the aspirant’s inner life deepens and secures its roots. They’re barometers in that our behavior with other people is where we gauge how well we walk our talk.
The question is, what standards should we apply? If you don’t set them high enough you might settle for ethical and moral mediocrity, and that can limit your spiritual growth. On the other hand, if your expectations are unrealistic you run the risk of always being displeased with yourself—and how spiritual is it to punish yourself every time you come up a little short?
Each of us has to find the delicate balance between two opposite positions: accepting who and what we are at every point along the path; and always aspiring to do better. Self-acceptance without complacency is an ongoing challenge. So is being real about what you need to work on without being too tough on yourself.
With that in mind, here’s a suggestion for establishing spiritual self-improvement goals for the year. Identify twelve qualities you'd like to work on, one per month. This alphabetized list might help you select them:
Acceptance ; Balance; Calmness; Compassion;
Contentment; Detachment; Devotion; Empathy;
Faith; Forgiveness; Friendliness; Generosity;
Gratitude; Humility; Joy; Kindness;
Love; Optimism; Patience; Playfulness;
Power; Reverence; Surrender; Trust;
Vibrancy; Wholeness; Wonder; Worship
Make each of your twelve the quality of the month, in whatever order makes sense. Then, each month, set the intention to improve in that area. Once or twice a day, perhaps after a regular meditation or prayer session, visualize a situation in which you express that month’s quality. Let the scenario unfold by itself, with you behaving in alignment with your ideal. Then, monitor yourself as you go about your business and see where you do well and where you miss the mark.
Just as plants reach for the unattainable sun, we have no choice but to stretch toward the upper limits of goodness, even if that goal is unreachable. But, while we always need to do better, we also need to lighten up. In fact, having a good laugh over our absurd attempts to be perfect is a spiritual practice in itself. Donna, for instance, cracked up when she realized she couldn’t forgive herself for not forgiving her parents. That was the moment she snapped out of her funk. So, you might want to add a couple of items to your resolutions: be kind to yourself and keep your sense of humor.