On New Year’s Resolutions and Channeling Henry David Thoreau

I take my New Year’s resolutions way too seriously, and it’s all Henry David Thoreau’s fault.

Every student of literature  goes through a phase of romanticizing the Romantics—memorizing “The Raven” even when it’s not been assigned, keeping a copy of Leaves of Grass on one’s person at all times, feigning interest in Moby Dick,  resolving to name one’s first child Pearl, writing Emerson quotes on note cards and sticking them all over the place.

While my phase came and went before I graduated from high school, there was one American Romantic I never fell out of love with.  So obsessed with Henry David Thoreau that I convinced my parents to take me on a pilgrimage to Walden Pond in Massachusetts, I vowed never to live anywhere without keeping his famous quotation in a place of honor.

And so about this time every year, I go into my office, stand before my cork board, and read Thoreau’s most celebrated words:

"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived."

Then I ask myself, am I living deliberately?

Living deliberately doesn’t necessarily mean living alone in a cabin in the woods. (Little known fact: Thoreau’s cabin was within walking distance of his home, and his mom did most of his laundry for him!) Living deliberately means living on purpose, living with intention, living mindfully. It means refusing to simply accept things as they are or bow to convention. It means asking hard questions of yourself and your culture, resolving to intentionally do away with those things that are not life-giving, important, and meaningful. It means actually choosing to live rather than just letting life happen.

This is why every year, my New Year’s resolution is to lose ten pounds and live deliberately.

The living deliberately part takes on a different shape each year. One year it meant finishing my book. Another year it meant quitting my job. Another year it meant trying to take Jesus more seriously.

This year I want live deliberately by reexamining the things I think I need.

This is what I mean: It seems to me that there are all of these voices telling me that I need certain things—privacy, boundaries, a 3-bedroom house, a two-car garage, clean neighbors, cool friends, fashionable clothes, TV, junk food, exercise equipment, a plan, a religion, a career, certainty, approval, stacks and stacks of books, and lotion that gives my skin a healthy-looking glow. Rarely do I stop, take stock of how I spend my money and my time, and ask myself—Do I really need this? Is this really essential? What is its purpose?

Donald Miller put it this way:

The ambitions we have will become the stories we live. If you want to know what a person’s story is about, just ask them what they want. If we don’t want anything, we are living boring stories, and if we want a Roomba vacuum cleaner, we are living stupid stories. If it won’t work in a story, it won’t work in life (A Million Miles in A Thousand Years, p. 124-125).

Shane Claiborne said it like this:

One of the things I think Jesus is doing is setting us free from  the heavy yoke of an oppressive way of life. I know plenty of people, both rich and poor, who are suffocating from the weight of an American dream, who find themselves heavily burdened by the lifeless toil and consumption we put upon ourselves. This is the yoke we are being set free from. The new yoke is still not easy (it’s a cross, for heaven’s sake), but we carry it together, and it is good and leads us to rest, especially for the weariest traveler (The Irresistible Revolution, p. 137).

I think that perhaps the biggest hindrance to living deliberately is allowing the invisible strings of perceived needs to move us around like puppets. My New Year’s resolution is to shake free of those strings—even if it means losing my house, losing my routine, losing some of my privacy, losing some of my stuff, losing some of my friends, losing my pride, losing my fortune, gaining my soul. My New Year's resolution is to front only the essential facts of life so that when I come to die, I will know that I truly lived.

...That, and lose ten pounds, of course.

What are some of your New Year's resolutions, both grand and simple?  And what do you think it means to live deliberately?

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Simplify, Simplify: 10 Things We Don't Actually Need

The other day I caught this TV show called My Fair Wedding about a Hollywood wedding planner who sweeps in to save middle-class brides from their cheap weddings. As I watched him lecture a bride about how she shouldn’t settle for a less-than perfect dress, how it’s “bad etiquette” not to serve the most expensive drinks to guests, and how she needed to ditch her homemade centerpieces for the “right” floral arrangements at $500 a pop, I got to thinking about how, in our consumer-driven culture, we are easily convinced that we NEED things we don’t actually need

Rarely is this more obvious than at Christmastime, when even the most idealistic of us cave in to the relentless desire to buy, buy, buy.  I finished up my holiday shopping yesterday, and at every single store I was asked by the cahier if I wanted to get a store credit card and save ten percent.  Every time I said no, the guy or girl behind the checkout counter looked a little horrified.  “You don’t want to save ten percent?” they would ask with their eyebrows raised.

By the end of the day, I’d spent hundreds of dollars on people I love and care for very much, who are probably simultaneously spending lots of money one me and Dan because they love and care for us very much...and yet I’m pretty sure that all of us are feeling a little panicky about our bank accounts right about now.

How did this happen? Who told us that all of this was necessary?

From wedding planners, to retailers, to economists, to Oprah—the voices telling us to spend more money are getting louder and louder, despite the bad economy.

Given enough time, I can convince myself that I NEED all kinds of things I don’t actually need—upgraded exercise equipment (for my health), a boatload of new books (for research), games for our Wii console, (to justify the initial purchase of the Wii console), a new kitchen (for entertaining guests), and Starbucks-brand chocolate truffles, (for my sanity). I know that none of this stuff will actually make me happy...or skinny, or smart, or sane...but I still feel like I NEED it.

Knowing that I don’t is both freeing and scary.

With this in mind, here’s a list of ten things we think we need, but probably don’t. (Honestly, I own many of these things myself.) What else can you think of, and what are you doing to simplify your life this holiday season?

  1. Over 100 TV stations...or any TV stations for that matter, I suppose
  2. Wardrobes that keep up with ever-changing trends
  3. Three bedroom, two bathroom houses with living rooms, dining rooms, kitchens, and dens
  4. A new cell phone every twelve to twenty-four months
  5. Things from Wal-Mart
  6. Weddings that put young couples (or their parents) into debt
  7. Snacks
  8. Gym memberships (which would become even less necessary with the removal of snacks!)
  9. Moisturizers and beauty products that promise to make us look like 16-year-old models
  10. Wrapping paper (okay, so I've had a rough week with some oddly shaped packages

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