by Jordan Poyner
Of modernity, German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said: “nothing is more timely than weakness of the will.” It is now March and for some wistful makers of New Year’s resolutions, Nietzsche’s words may ring stingingly true. While the practice of making New Year’s resolutions—that is, annually committing oneself to some kind of self-improvement or positive activity—seems unambiguously good, the reality is that, generally speaking, little stock is put by these commitments. And if we are careful in our reflection, we might recognize that this annual moment of inconstancy is less the exception than the rule in our lives. For most of us human beings (myself included), our determinations and commitments to change—especially those made explicitly to ourselves—are hard to maintain. Understanding why our personal resolutions fail might be key to addressing a feeling of powerlessness or despair we experience when considering the broader issues facing society. It could be that our wills are weak, but rather than resist acknowledging this weakness, we should really consider it. It could be that we are asking too much of our wills or don’t understand what resolution, as commitment, requires.
For years I watched a close friend of mine try unsuccessfully to change a particular habit. He felt that he was spending too much time playing video games. He was someone with ample free time, few responsibilities, and a desire to do good in the world. But he also really enjoyed video games and was having trouble defining a limit as to how much time he should spend playing them. At first his desire was given free rein because of a perceived inability to determine what was a better use of his time. He felt deeply conflicted about the most obvious means of helping others, which resulted in a kind of freedom or inertia in regards to his desires. Eventually, realizing that such a state wasn’t serving to make him happy, he resolved to limit his time playing video games to a few hours a day and to use the extra time in different ways that might be more conducive to his object.
My friend created a schedule for himself: he determined to go running daily and to read more. He contacted a homeless shelter and arranged to start volunteering there. He got involved in environmental activism, and tried to be more outgoing and open with others. But despite his best efforts, he found himself slipping back into old ways. He went running regularly for a few months but started making exceptions, skipping runs, and eventually returned to his original schedule of running only intermittently. He would try to read, but his attention would wander and he would feel a powerful desire to play video games instead—video games felt more alive and interactive. He couldn’t manage to reconcile his work hours with those the shelter needed help during. He started to experience a familiar despair in regards to his activism: the big issues didn’t seem affected by his attempts at outreach and organization. Over the course of a few months, he found himself back where he had started. The fact that he had so thoroughly backpedaled from his commitments had left him with a feeling of deep repugnance toward himself. It seemed as if his life was out of his control. Why did he suddenly feel so powerless and inconstant?
I want to pause here and consider this word suddenly. Whatever my friend might have felt, was his powerlessness actually novel or sudden? Like a sedentary individual who suddenly decides to run a 10k race, his inability to accomplish what he set out to do wasn’t a consequence of a sudden deficiency. The deficiency was there prior to his desire to change how he spent his time—he had only avoided seeing it. In this sense, our frustration with ourselves when our resolution fails seems unreasonable: we expect too much of our wills, which, like muscles, haven’t been properly trained. It’s understandable if the sedentary person is disappointed at recognizing in themself a softness or weakness they dislike. It makes less sense for that same person to be furious with themself for their inability to accomplish the end they set themselves when the pursuit of that end requires groundwork they haven’t laid. A misunderstanding about what is required of willing actions (i.e., not just willpower) obfuscates what is essential about resolve: it requires deliberation as well as action.
In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle claims that every action and choice seems to aim at some good. Choice is therefore inseparable from the ends (or goals) it serves to effect. If we follow Aristotle’s teaching here, we end up at a definition of choice as “deliberate desire,” which requires true understanding and right desire if our choices are to be of serious worth. The idea of choice as mere decision is impossible since it does little good to consider willingness and choice without also considering the ends we willingly choose on behalf of. This is one way in which contemporary understanding of these phenomena has moved strikingly away from Aristotle’s: nowadays it is not strange to discuss freedom of choice and will without reference to a good they are oriented towards. While my friend had resolved to spend less time playing video games, he didn’t really understand or desire an alternative end. Recognizing that video games weren’t making him happy, he changed his behavior. But when this change alone failed to secure the end of happiness, he went back to video games, which are at least more immediately gratifying. Like most, my friend wanted to live a purposeful life, but couldn’t seem to find his purpose. In an attempt to shortcut (maybe subconsciously) the difficult project of finding that purpose, my friend tried to forcibly adopt something akin to it. But that adoption wasn’t synonymous with a firm understanding or belief that what he wanted was truly good. All his prescriptions failed to supply their own impetus over time. His attempts to improve himself could only address an immediate dissatisfaction, not an ultimate objective.
We don’t really understand what the endpoint of wanting is—and we don’t have to. After all, who could really explain why we want to be happy? As it turns out, we’re not the best judges of what will make us happy. Our particular and transient desires often go unscrutinized, and this makes it difficult to pursue or defend them when we encounter resistance. It is largely for this reason that resolution today is a non-binding contract. As an agreement made between desire and action, it seems to hold no water, since we have ceased to take seriously the significance—let alone the rightness—of our desires. We understand that the fulfillment of our desires shouldn’t result in harm to others, but the relationship between certain desires and harm is unstable or unclear. Thus we are not seriously persuaded by German philosopher Immanuel Kant’s claim that we have duties to ourselves (self-improvement being one of them), because there seems to be no sense of an aggrieved party if we do not fulfill them. We may experience a sense of disappointment in ourselves when we fail to achieve some end we have set, but this disappointment is mild and ephemeral for the precise reason that our ends are only loosely agreed on. One might contend, perhaps without too much fuss from Nietzsche (if only because he is dead), that it isn’t a weakness of the will that is most timely, but a sense that our desires are provisional. The will seems weak for the simple reason that it isn’t well-oriented.
At the heart of the tradition of New Year’s resolutions is something beautiful: we grasp or discern that some better way of being is possible. The problem is that we are not convinced that the things we resolve to are truly choiceworthy. I don’t mean to suggest that the person who is convinced of the worthiness of their objective never falters. After all, it is one thing to want something and another to achieve it. For example, if I resolve to be less selfish, I might not know how to go about this, I might need an education in selflessness. But it may also be true that the resolution to be less selfish—like the resolution to be happier, which undergirds many more particular resolutions—is too vague, and perhaps it is intentionally (if less consciously) so. It’s possible to want things in a vague way, but maybe this vagueness is a symptom of the looseness of our desire. Can such looseness really supply the foundation of a resolution?
It’s easy to get tripped up by confusion over what the right thing to do is: will this make me happy? Will it actually benefit others? Will it have the effect I intend? But in the midst of our uncertainty, we seem to lose sight of a larger truth: big changes don’t occur without small ones occurring first. And the smallest changes are the most concretely approachable, though they are by no means easy to achieve. Responding to a previous article I’d written, a friend of mine said: “I worry that people think the country is so oppressive that they can’t navigate their life freely enough to effect change through the more ‘complex, consistent, and ambiguous activity’ that you talk about.” If we tacitly feel that we can’t affect private changes, how can we seriously believe that we have any role to play in questions of public significance? Like social reform, personal resolution takes time—it is a product of reflection and consistent work. You can’t begin with the most impressive motions: like a man preparing to run a marathon after years of immobility, you start by circling the block each day.
Jordan Poyner is a graduate student at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland.
 Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, trans. Walter Kaufmann, Aphorism 212.
 Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1094a1-3.
 Ibid., 1139a22-25.
 “The capacity to set oneself an end – any end whatsoever – is what characterizes humanity (as distinguished from animality). Hence there is also bound up with the end of humanity in our own person the rational will, and so the duty, to make ourselves worthy of humanity by culture in general, by procuring or promoting the capacity to realize all sorts of possible ends.” Immanuel Kant, The Metaphysics of Morals, trans. & ed. Mary J. Gregor (Cambridge University Press, 1996), MS 6:392.
Here is what I would say about the idea of resolving to be more selfless, and failing, regretfully. (You touch on some of this, so forgive me if this is redundant, or not applicable.) I think our desire to be selfless comes from the deepest part of us that was created to love, and pour out. For the various reasons that we choose selfishly, probably often out of self-protection, self-preoccupation, and/or self-preservation, I think we know deep down, (if we stop to question ourselves) that movement with others that is driven by a gain for self, is ultimately empty of the deeper happiness we long for. Even when we can get circumstance to go our way, it can’t deliver in the kind of happiness we crave. We were made to move and love on behalf of others even at a cost to ourselves. I think reality is living in the tension of knowing this as my deepest desire, and at the same time seeing my deep-seated commitment to myself that plays out at a cost to others. For me, this recognition allows me to continue in resolve, while seeing my failure – And the failure doesn’t need to lead to self-loathing – it’s troubling nature only confirms what I most deeply want/desire: to love well. Ultimately, grace is the covering over the full reality of this tension I live with. It can be a profoundly good dance, I think – resolve and failure, over and over again.