The Beauty and Danger of January

January

January is definitely in the running for my favorite month. There are two reasons for this. First, I always feel I can start over. For me, it is a time of seeing what I did badly last year and making plans to change.

Secondly, there is time to actually implement those changes. The calendar is mercifully clean. I love the holidays, but it is so hard to make time with all the family gatherings, food, parties, and end-of year events. I think of December is a over-feasted and over-joyful king, and January as a hip minimalist with only 2 shirts. January is sleek, clean, and efficient. It is a time for getting things done.

Efficiency

But there is a danger in efficiency, especially in America. Our culture is drunk on efficiency. We love finding the best way of getting things done, the newest method to make you stick to your habits, and the latest gadget to make you more productive.

All this is good, but I fear that we’ve become an efficient, but not reflective, people. Why do we do what we do? As I read books and blogs on getting more things done, very few of them mention an overarching picture of why we do things at all. The systems are good, but the goals are so tired. “How to lose weight, how to read more, how to journal, how to meditate.” It’s all self-improvement. Why are we doing any of this? Losing weight will help you live longer, but it seems we just want to live longer so we have more years of healthy eating. We live longer for the sake of living longer. We better ourselves only for the purpose of bettering ourselves.

G.K. Chesterton, in his introduction to his book “Heretics” writes, “When everything about a people is for the time growing weak and ineffective, it begins to talk about efficiency. So it is that when a man’s body is a wreck he begins, for the first time, to talk about health. Vigorous organisms talk not about their processes, but about their aims. There cannot be any better proof of the physical efficiency of a man than that he talks cheerfully of a journey to the end of the world. And there cannot be any better proof of the practical efficiency of a nation than that it talks constantly of a journey to the end of the world, a journey to the Judgment Day and the New Jerusalem. There can be no stronger sign of a coarse material health than the tendency to run after high and wild ideals; it is in the first exuberance of infancy that we cry for the moon”

And though Chesterton wrote this in 1905, society has grown increasingly interested in efficiency for efficiency’s sake. There is a slew of literature to make you a better version of yourself. Presumably so you can do more. More of what you ask? More self betterment. Chesterton would call this efficiency for efficiency’s sake.

So if we do not work at self improvement, what do we work at? Chesterton goes on,

“None of the strong men in the strong ages would have understood what you meant by working for efficiency. Hildebrand would have said that he was working not for efficiency, but for the Catholic Church. Danton would have said that he was working not for efficiency, but for liberty, equality, and fraternity. Even if the ideal of such men were simply the ideal of kicking a man downstairs, they thought of the end like men, not of the process like paralytics. They did not say, “Efficiently elevating my right leg, using, you will notice, the muscles of the thigh and calf, which are in excellent order, I–” Their feeling was quite different. They were so filled with the beautiful vision of the man lying flat at the foot of the staircase that in that ecstasy the rest followed in a flash.”

Conclusion

We need large, compelling visions, and only then we need to talk about the best way to get there. Buying the top-of-the-line walking shoes doesn’t make a lot of sense unless we are actually going somewhere. Let’s be swept up in a vision for bringing the kingdom of God to earth, of discipling the nations, of baptizing people that are far from God. We need systems and processes to make those work, but lets not get so caught up in the process that we forget the end goal. In all our planning and resolutions for January, to paraphrase Chesterton, let’s think of the end like men, and not only of the process, like paralytics.