At the risk of sounding like one of the Village People, I love the YMCA, especially in winter. In any place that has real winters, the YMCA provides a sanctuary for those who want to work out without risking frostbite. It is also as close as most neighborhoods get to having a town square. In the gloom of short, cold days, people hang out together, laughing or talking with fellow human beings, aglow with endorphins and the self-righteousness that comes with any bit of exercise. Neighbors chat over the exercycle.
Working out in this public square is immensely more enjoyable than working out on a treadmill in my basement, except for the first two months of the year: In January and February it is hand-to-hand combat for every elliptical trainer or weight machine. The towels are in short supply, and the machines are occupied with red-faced resolve by people who have made New Year’s resolutions.
Come January, the locker room is stuffed with good intentions. Then, like a slow exhalation after a powerlift, the room unstuffs, the resolve runs out of gas and the regulars start smiling again as order returns to their universe.
Of course, one year not long ago I was a red-faced beginner. The results of an annual physical inspired me to try and do better. I asked the bored young woman introducing me to the various torture machines how long people lasted, and she said, “six weeks.” Right then and there I resolved that I would beat that sorry record. I told myself that I had to last at least three months, and I’ve been fairly faithful to my exercise routine ever since.
Which is why I am one of those people who does not pooh-pooh the power of New Year’s resolutions, even if it means waiting for a treadmill.
Of course, resolutions don’t need to start Jan. 1. In fact, after overindulging and overspending, our desire to make ourselves over at the start of the year does have the whiff of guilty desperation about it.
But if resolution-making is often the triumph of hope over experience, it also testifies to our awareness that we need to change some things about ourselves.
Growing older can at times be dispiriting. Those flaws and weaknesses and unreached goals that seemed so correctable in one’s 20s seem much less so in one’s 50s. One doesn’t just lose physical flexibility with age, there is a kind of mental and spiritual flexibility that gets a bit harder to muster up as well. We grow comfortable with our sins and our sloth. We let the worries and anxieties of the world overwhelm our enthusiasms. We settle.
This surrender is no better for our spiritual health than our physical health. In the act of making resolutions, we aren’t just setting goals for ourselves, we are often reminding ourselves what is really important. Spending time with the family. Developing a hobby that will keep us energized. Taking care of something that we have been procrastinating on for years, whether it’s our cluttered attic or just the spare tire around our midsection.
As any retreat master knows, what kind of goals we set for ourselves is the critical first step. We need to be realistic. Maybe Mass every day isn’t in the cards, but reading one chapter of a Gospel is. Maybe training for a marathon is not likely to fit into my work schedule, but three evenings a week at the gym is. Or better yet, a walk with a spouse, child or friend around an indoor track three times a week is the best kind of multitasking for the New Year.
And if the Y doesn’t do it for you, why not resolve to schedule a retreat? Think of it as a workout for the soul, but without the crowds. Who knows what other changes it might lead to?
Greg Erlandson is OSV president and publisher.