Sermon: New Year, Same You by, Ethan Loewi

2020 January 26
by First U Bklyn

New Year, Same You
First Unitarian Congregational Society in Brooklyn
Ethan Loewi, Intern Minister
January 26, 2020 

Friends, today is January 26th—which means, according to the national average, that 80% of us have already failed our new year’s resolutions. If I had a DJ setup here on the pulpit, I would play a sad trombone noise. For my resolution, I said I was going to stop procrastinating—as it turns out, I procrastinated on this very service. Mostly on picking out the songs–turns out it’s really hard to find good music that isn’t copyright protected. There was a brief, panicked period where our closing hymn was going to have to be the Canadian national anthem.

This failure, while predictable in hindsight, comes as a bitter blow. Because I really thought 2020 was gonna be my year, gang. I thought of the phrase “new year, new you.” And I said oh God, yes please. Sign me up. Who wouldn’t want that? To get a whole new self, the same way we’d get a new cell phone. But after a few weeks, I started to realize that my new self is a lot like last year’s model. Same phone, different case. It’s kind of a bad joke, and I feel like I fall for it every year.

We live in a culture obsessed with change. We are told always to move forward–to have more and do more. To be relentless in our search for bigger and better. Henry David Thoreau felt this way in the 1840s, and things have not exactly slowed down since then. I think twenty seconds of browsing Twitter would kill the man. As he laments in the pages of Walden, “Why should we live with such hurry and waste of life?” As much as I love the bald eagle, I think a more fitting spirit animal for our nation might be the great white shark: a voracious creature that cannot stop moving–for whom staying still means suffocation. And we are never more obsessed with change than at the start of a new year. In the crisp, heady air of early January we take deep, dizzying breaths of hope, and seem to exhale our old selves. Just as on Halloween the boundary between our world and the spirit realm is said to thin, around New Year’s we feel we can step across the metaphysical barrier between our true self and ideal self. Maybe even become our ideal self–that luminous doppelganger who always gets eight hours of sleep, never makes excuses, and never procrastinates. We feel we can achieve that most ambitious and American of goals: the Transformation.

We love transformations because we’re taught to. They’re ingrained in our collective unconscious by everything from Horatio Alger novels to movies like the Karate Kid, where a hopeless klutz transforms into a world-beater in the span of a few montages. Or in the countless reality shows that transform people through fitness, fashion, and a few minutes of tearful soul-searching. The triumphant end result is that most American of diptychs: the Before and After. The disgusting old self, slain by the radiant new. A lot of people promising transformations are quite literally trying to sell us something. And when their new juice cleanse or treadmill or beard cream doesn’t make us a new person, we seek out the next miracle cure, and the next—chasing a horizon that seems just within reach.

To get us on this literal and figurative treadmill, and keep us there, is the brilliance of advertising. We are shown a paradigm of personal change that says we must transform to be happy–only to find that no transformation is ever enough. We are never as different as we want to be. In the words of Don Draper, the greatest of all fictional ad men, “What is happiness? It’s a moment before you need more happiness.” Hence the deflating outcome of most New Year’s resolutions. In our zealous rush to made new, there is a sweeping disregard for what we are. And when we fail to bootstrap our way to a perfect new reality, we feel worthless and weak–flattened by the pressure to become someone different than ourselves.

My true subject here is something a bit trickier than the new year’s resolution industrial complex. I find myself wondering about the problem of insatiability–what kind of change might ever satisfy us? And what does it cost us to be so fixated on transformation? The Brazilian philosopher Roberto Unger claims that insatiability is an irreparable flaw of human existence. Echoing Don Draper, he writes that “Our desires are unlimited in both their number and their reach. Contentment remains a momentary interlude in an experience of privation and longing that has no end.”

So what could enough even look like? Must our desires torment us like mosquito bites that never fade? Maybe we are trapped on a treadmill of superficial self-improvement, with true peace always just beyond our fingertips. To escape it is no easy task: to love ourselves as we are, rather than pining after a distant ideal, is to swim against a fierce cultural current.

Perhaps “enough” lies in rejecting the notion of the TV transformation. “Enough” lies in cultivating a view of change that is kinder, more patient, and values our journey as much more than just a means to a photogenic end. The fact of the matter is, we know that deep change rarely happens overnight. Now, it’s incredibly tempting to believe that transformations are quick or easy. I mean, the Karate Kid is a masterpiece—I’ve seen it nine times, and I’d see it again right now. Wax on, wax off, etcetera. Great movie. But of course, defeating the Cobra Kai at the All-Valley Karate Championships–or any goal worth achieving–takes practice, time, dedication–and the process isn’t always as obvious as a butterfly bursting out of a chrysalis. Nor should it be. Spiritual growth–like learning to be more loving, or more curious, can’t be shown in a before-and-after picture, but it’s a hell of a lot more significant than losing a few inches off your waist line. May we all grow at our own pace, and not feel like we have to tear up who we are in pursuit of who we’re told we should be.

Change rarely works by the logic of the TV transformation. It tends to be a gradual process–perhaps so gradual that we don’t even notice it constantly happening. One intriguing perspective on change comes to us from an ancient source–the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, who lived around 500 BC. Heraclitus theorized that all things are made from the same eternal fire–and this insight, that energy is the essence of matter, was hit on some millennia later, by a little-known scientist named Albert Einstein. Heraclitus also believed that all matter is constantly in flux–most famously expressed in his saying “You can never step into the same river twice.” There are profound spiritual implications to that statement. All things are constantly changing: even when we sit still, our cells shift, die, and replenish. Our neurons fire in new and different orders. Even something as seemingly sedentary as a boulder in the park is changing–as its rocky face erodes, and mosses make a home across its back.

From one moment to the next, our lives are never exactly what they were. Change is not just possible, but constant. And contained in that belief is the simple-yet-exhilarating claim that you are every day a new creation. Our spirits are not static–and every minute of our lives bears the possibility of renewal. This idea takes different forms in many of the world’s great religions: for example, certain Islamic theologians known as the Mutakallamun believed that every atom of the world is remade with every instant that passes. That God handcrafts everything, everywhere, again and again in perpetuity. It’s a heady notion–and whether or not you agree with it, it illustrates the spiritual truth that change is all around us. It is constant and inevitable–we couldn’t stop it if we wanted to.

What we can influence, if not totally control, is how we change. And ironically, when we resist the logic of the TV transformation, we open ourselves to real growth. Patient, gradual, progression towards our goals, that doesn’t sacrifice our old self at the altar of an imagined ideal. When we spend less time pining after a person we’re not, and more time caring for the person we are, that’s when we escape the sad treadmill of broken resolutions.

Just to be clear, I am not here inveighing against ambition, or singing the virtues of complacency. Big goals are a great thing. But we don’t reach them overnight. If I may turn to the Karate Kid for one last metaphor, we don’t go from white belt to black belt just like that. Let us reject gaudy, superficial transformations, like those we’re shown shown in ads and makeover shows, and instead cherish the countless little transformations that take place in every nook and cranny of our lives. With every fear we face and act of kindness we perform, we are growing. You might not look like a new person, or even feel like one. But growth is far more marathon than sprint. And hope lies in taking one step, then another. 

So as we run, walk, and stumble into the spring of 2020, praying and resolving to be more of this and less of that, let us turn a skeptical eye to the concept of the sudden transformation. You can love the person you will be tomorrow, without scorning the person you are today, and the person that got you this far. Self-love is no easy task, at times–but this is the work of religious community: to help us see the divine worth in every person. And every person does, in fact, includes you. There is a lamentable irony I’ve noticed in my life, and the lives of many friends and family: we say we value love and forgiveness, but show very little of it to ourselves. This is a deeply unfortunate double standard. The Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, in the opening lines of his poem “Love,” writes that “Love means to learn to look at yourself the way one looks at distant things. For you are are only one thing among many.”

We are all but one thing among many–as you have empathy for others, try to have it for yourself–regardless of how much or how little you feel like you transform in 2020. Especially on the bad days, the hopeless days, when your past is a burden and your future a minefield, remember your worth. Remember you are loved exactly as you are. And now, please rise in body or spirit for the singing of the Canadian National Anthem.

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