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Moments of High Resolve

Moments of High Resolve

"Each January 1, millions of people drag themselves out of bed, full of hope, …resolved to eat less, exercise more, spend less money, work harder at the office, keep the home cleaner, and still miraculously have more time for romantic dinners and long walks on the beach (Willpower 38)." Sound familiar, those moments of resolve?

"By February 1, [millions of those same people are] embarrassed to even look at [their] list (38)." Also sound familiar? It does to me!

Those observations were made by Roy Baumeister, a social psychologist and John Tierney, a New York Times science writer, in their book, Willpower: Rediscovering The Greatest Human Strength. I admit I am often one of those millions of people with wonderful, well-intentioned resolutions  to get up earlier, eat fewer sweets, to meditate every day – one of the millions who starts out well, only to fizzle out a few weeks or even days later.
As Benjamin Franklin wrote in Poor Richard’s Almanac:
"Tis easy to frame a good bold resolution;
But hard is the Task that concerns execution."
So a radio interview with Baumeister and Tierney about Willpower caught my attention. Perhaps they had information that could help me stick to my resolutions or at least explain why I have such a hard time sticking to them. And they did have some  information!

Drawing on a variety of studies, Baumeister and Tierney claim
that at any given moment each of us has "a finite amount of willpower that becomes depleted as we use it," and that we each have just one stock of willpower to use for all situations (35).

So…at your family holiday gathering as you are waiting for the big meal, you use the same willpower to resist eating those chocolate truffles in the bowl right next to you, as you use to hold your tongue as your brother-in-law spouts his political views. It’s the same supply of willpower getting depleted with each effort, leaving less willpower for the next.

But Baumeister and Tierney say that there is another factor at work here, a factor connected to those chocolate truffles. They say that the amount of willpower available to you depends upon the amount of glucose in your system. Exerting willpower uses and depletes glucose, they claim. (Actually, it depletes the neurotransmitters made from glucose.) "No glucose. [No transmitters.] No willpower (49)." And the more willpower you use, the more you are likely to crave sweet things to get that glucose level back up.

Well, those concepts right there would certainly help explain my grocery shopping experiences! If I shop when I’m hungry, everything looks extra delicious just when my willpower is at its lowest because my glucose is low. And it’s always driven me crazy that even when I am not hungry, I can go through the entire store saying "no" – No, that  is too expensive. No, that isn’t healthy for me. No, I don’t really need that right now – only to put several unnecessary, expensive and/or unhealthy items in my cart in the last two minutes, just before I head to the checkout counter. After all that saying "no," why did I cave in at the very end?! Because by the time I get through the store, my willpower is totally used up. (Hanging by a thread, like the rope in the photo on our order of service cover.) That’s exactly why they place racks of candy at the check out counter! They call it a "point of purchase" sale, meant to tempt our impulsive side. More like a low-willpower purchase, I say.

Perhaps you can identify with that shopping scenario, if not around food, maybe around books, or clothing, or sporting gear or the thing that tempts you. And perhaps you too have caved in after holding your ground for so long in a conversation, or made a poor decision while you were hungry. Perhaps you too believe Baumeister and Tierney when they say, "Don’t trust the glucose-deprived brain for anything important."

But before you reach for a candy bar to raise your glucose levels and fortify your willpower,  you should know that Baumeister and Tierney say it’s better to "go for the slow [and steady] burn," rather than a sudden spike in your blood sugar level which will crash afterward and leave you in worse shape than when you started (58). Eat foods with a low glycemic index, they suggest, in other words eat foods that don’t raise your blood sugar level too quickly, except in emergencies, when, for example, a small raspberry lifesaver might help you stave off a sudden craving for a cigarette, or keep you from making a comment you will later regret.

As you might expect, this idea of a glucose/willpower connection and the notion that our willpower is limited have drawn a great deal of attention and some criticism. There are researchers who argue that willpower is not limited  that it’s limited only when you believe that it is. Willpower is in your head, they argue, not in your diet. It’s your expectation that matters.

My own experience tells me that both thought patterns and biology are relevant to willpower  and intertwined. I’ve been playing with my eating patterns and paying attention to the strength of my willpower as I’ve been working on this sermon this. I had lots of holiday sweets around, but tried to eat foods that wouldn’t raise my blood sugar level too quickly  unless I was getting very tired of writing, and wanted to make one final short push for the day, at which point I turned to those Christmas cookies for help. And help they did…for a short while.

The book, Willpower, is fascinating and if you are at all intrigued I encourage you to read it. While I learned many things, to my surprise, what hearing the interview and reading the book have me thinking about most is the connection between willpower and religion, between willpower and religious community.

Baumeister and Tierney write that "We tend to think of willpower as a force for personal improvement, but…. will-power is [more] about getting along with others." It evolved in our ancestors to help them get along with the rest of the clan, and it still serves that purpose. It "enables us to …override impulses that are based on our short-term [self-interests] (163). People with stronger willpower are more altruistic. They are more likely to donate to charity, to do volunteer work, and to offer their own homes as shelter to someone with no place to go (260)." As Baumeister and Tierney put it, "inner discipline …leads to outer kindness." Religion, Baumeister and Tierney point out, remains one of the most common and effective strategies for redirecting people away from selfish behavior, and strengthening self-control.

Now, in spite of the fact that there are plenty of religious people (some, very imfamous ones) who appear to have little or no self-control, I very much believe that religion’s purpose is to shape our behavior, to shape our behavior toward our personal good and the common good at the same time. I had never thought of religion explicitly in terms of strengthening self-control, but of course, at its best, that is what religion does, even liberal religion wherein people sometimes celebrate self-freedom more readily than self-control. (Me included.)

Baumeister and Tierney believe that religion strengthens self-control in two key ways: by building willpower and by improving monitoring.

Willpower is "like a muscle," they write, "[it] becomes fatigued [if you use it too much] (yes) but you can strengthen that muscle over time through exercise (1)." A stronger willpower muscle has greater stamina. It tires more slowly. Religion helps us exercise our willpower muscle, and it does this any time it asks of us self-control, any time it asks us to do the more difficult thing rather than the easy thing.

This can be in large ways, like turning the other cheek or loving your enemy, but it can also be in sm
aller ways, like coming to church every week, expressing gratitude before each meal, … Meditating faithfully, praying the rosary, … repeating Hindu mantras, fasting during Ramadan, eating only kosher food, holding specific prayer poses (180)… Studies show that something as simple as getting yourself to sit up tall for two weeks instead of slouching can increase your willpower in all areas of your life.

If there is only one stash of willpower that we use for everything, then exercising self-control anywhere in our life strengthens it for use everywhere. The added value of a spiritual discipline is that it can lift up and reinforce a religion’s highest values while it strengthens willpower, linking values and willpower in a person’s heart and mind. I have always valued spiritual practices, and am now even more inspired to encourage people to pursue strong spiritual disciplines in our UU congregations, especially spiritual disciplines practiced with others…

because the other key effect of religion, Baumeister and Tierney claim, is to improve monitoring. I’ll explain.

Researchers trying to understand self-awareness found a link between self-awareness and self-control. They discovered that when people were placed in front of a mirror, or were told that they were being filmed, they consistently changed their behavior. They worked harder at tasks, they better resisted temptations, and their actions were more consistent with their inner values (113).
Hmmmm….makes me want to put more mirrors around the house.

To talk about monitoring, Baumeister and Tierney look at Dieting. Appropriate this morning since losing weight it the most popular New Year’s resolution. They give three weight-loss dieting rules:
1. Never go on a diet. (nice, huh?)
2. Never vow to give up chocolate or any other food (for weight-
loss purposes).
3. Whether you’re [thinking of yourself or others], never equate
being overweight with having weak willpower (215)."

You can see the glucose dilemma for dieters:
If you try to eat less food or avoid some foods that you like in order to lose weight, that means 1) you won’t have much glucose in the first place, plus 2) each time you resist tempting food, you will deplete your glucose even more meaning that you will have less and less willpower to make wise decisions about eating. It’s a trap! Never go on a diet, they advise, but they do suggest, among other things, weighing yourself every day.

They observed that you can improve self-control by monitoring yourself frequently, whether that means looking at your weight on the scale each day, or looking at the size of your credit card balance each day. And they found that public monitoring improves self-control even more, a key to the success of Weight Watchers and Alcoholics Anonymous. We are better able to regulate our own behavior when we know that other people know how we are doing. It’s a positive use of peer pressure. You are more likely to keep your new years resolutions, if you make them in the presence of other people, especially a romantic partner, Baumeister and Tierney say (177).

For some religious people it’s not a human partner, but God who is the mirror, the outside monitor. God is watching, always, and so influencing behavior, often in powerful and positive ways (181). (Let me tell you, that is the story of my Catholic childhood! All those "bad" things I didn’t do because "God was watching." And okay, some bad things I did anyway, probably while my glucose was low.) Like Weight Watchers and Alcoholics Anonymous religious communities can offer not only emotional support, but also helpful public monitoring, positive peer pressure when we know that someone else is paying attention and knows and cares about how we’re doing, about how well we’re living up to the values to which we aspire.

This concept has me very thoughtful, especially since some of us have experienced painfully intrusive social monitoring in religious communities, and so are wary. Whether we know it or not, our UU communities already act as mirrors, already offer public monitoring. We can’t help it, we’re human communities after all, and our norms and values are communicated and enforced in all kinds of ways, I just wonder whether we can make our social monitoring of each other more conscious and tie it more explicitly to the values we say we hold. In our largely "hands off" tradition, with our valuing of privacy and our reluctance to place too many demands, can we with gentleness and compassion, learn to hold each other helpfully accountable to what we say we believe is important?

Our covenants are a start. I wonder, can we offer each other a more conscious positive peer pressure to help each other, in Channing’s words, "to become what we praise," what we value most highly. If Baumeister and Tierney are right, we can draw upon each other for public monitoring to strengthen our willpower and our well-being, making us better able to reach out to the benefit of others and the world.

Thinking more deeply about both spiritual disciplines and about public monitoring is on my list of things to do this year. One of many things on the list.

Baumeister and Tierney write that the problem with a list of new years resolutions is not our willpower, it’s the list! No one has enough willpower to accomplish the whole list, they say, at least not all at once. Early in the book they offer some very basic advice: Pick one clear goal at a time, they suggest, a goal that is lofty enough to inspire you onward. Keep it in sight, and figure out the very next tiny step that will take you in that direction. And then, even if the step seems too small to be of consequence, take that step. Now.

Thurman and Channing and Whyte have said this all already this morning, framed in personal terms, but know that you do not have to do this alone, that you and the members of your religious community can, and I believe ought to help each other do this every step of the way.

Help each other "keep fresh before [you] the moments of [your] high resolve, that in fair weather or in foul, in good times or in tempests…[you might] not forget that to which [your] life is committed (Thurman)."

"Start with your own question," but let it be informed by other people and by our tradition every Sunday, every small group gathering, every religious education class, every meeting, every conversation.

The question at hand is –  to what is your life committed?
What is your highest resolve?
What do you praise, what do you value enough to want to become that?

"Start right now,
take a small step you can call your own…"

Start close in,
don’t take the second step or the third,
start with the first thing,
close in,
[perhaps] the step you don’t want to take (Whyte)."

Or maybe, in your heart, it’s the step you do want to take.

So may it be.

Works drawn upon and/or cited:

Baumeister, Roy F. and Tierney, John. Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength.  New York: Penguin Books, by Penguin Books, 2011. Print.

"Willpower: It’s in Your Head" by Greg Walton and Carol Dweck, November 26, 2011, New York Times Sunday Review.

Thurman – Reading #498 in Singing the Living Tradition
Thurman, Howard, and Anne S. Thurman. For the Inward Journey: The Writings of Howard Thurman. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984. Print.

"Start Close In" by David Whyte
Whyte, David. River Flow: New & Selected Poems, 1984-2007. Langley, Wash: Many Rivers Press, 2007. Print.

"Likeness to God" by William Ellery Channing
Discourse at the Ordination of the Rev. F.A. Farley, Providence, R.I., 1828