It’s Jan. 1, so I feel obligated to write this one warning: no matter what, don’t join the gym. Not when you are under the enormous pressure to change your life. But one in eight of us will cave under that pressure. You will dust off the unused membership card you finally found under a pile of health magazines, pristine as when you first got it, or you will sign up for a membership to a gym, ignoring the petition of your spouse pointing to the total-gym machine you got last New Year in your basement and the well-equipped fitness clubhouse which is part of your HOA fee and a sneaker’s-throw from your home. It’s different this year, you tell your spouse as you suit up in your new sneakers.The second week of January in a gym is like the Vatican court on Easter, sardine-packed with seasonal guests. You can tell the regulars from the seasonal; they head back out with an audible sigh when they see a line on the elliptical. But they will patiently wait it out because by mid-February, the regulars will have their lockers and their ellipticals back as 60 percent of membership is destined to disappear. When the bill comes, the $50 dollars deducted will leave you feeling worse than before, not just about not having worked out since that first and only day in the gym, but having failed on another New Year’s resolution. So don’t join the gym.I am not advising a you-can’t-fail-if-you-don’t-try-method. I am warning against making promises under pressure. Such promises are like a warm spell in winter. They don’t last. Once the pressure is gone, so is the motivation for the promise. Any New Year’s resolution is a collective social pressure to change yourself. It doesn’t feel as such because everyone does it. Which only proves the point, the pressure for self-improvement is now our environment. It is the water we are swimming in, so we don’t know that this current has us stuck in a loop.New Year’s resolutions are the “holiday-ization” of America’s addiction to self-help. Growing up in Korea, we never made a goal on the lunar new year. We celebrated by remembering our ancestors, the living and the dead.But self-help is not going anywhere. It is a $10 billion industry. And the cement on which that towering industry is built is perennial dissatisfaction with oneself. The gentler tag is “self-improvement.” But you will only want to make yourself better if you don’t feel too good about yourself. So gyms peddle two contradictory messages: you can do anything, but you will need our help to do everything. The contradiction in the self-help genre has been woven into our psyche. We have become a generation of the most powerful people in need of constant empowerment, the most independent people dependent on gurus. We can self-help only with the help of others. And we are free to do what we want, because it is one of the latest seven-step schemes to freedom. It is the contradiction of Black Friday happening on Thursdays, right after the dinner in which we shared our gratitude because we already have everything we need. You can’t see the contradiction you swim in.A promise is hard to keep as it is. It needs the strength of a deep root. Social pressure and self-dissatisfaction are terrible soils for roots because they are shallow. The root will give as quickly as it sprouted. Maybe we shouldn’t be thinking about self-improvement on Jan. 1, but about sacrifice. And not about self-sacrifice, but sacrifice made by others that helped us come this far, ready to turn another calendar year.This would be the spirit of the Christmas story the sacrifice of a virgin for a baby, a betrothed young man to his bride despite scandal, and a promise of a God wrapped in a baby born to give his life lighting our winter days beyond a single holiday. Stories of sacrifice can root a resolution that can last beyond January, because the resolution would not be about me, but about others. And my inspiration to keep a promise will not be the guru-authors who have no knowledge of my existence, but those who have given not just their hackneyed psycho-babble (even my father is prone to this), but their time and sweat to me. Sacrifice and sweat are good for promises.Samuel Son is a teaching pastor in Raleigh.
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