by Susannah Brister
Proverbs 13:12 “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but desire fulfilled is a tree of life.”
I have always hated New Year’s resolutions. Every year I faced January 1st full of stolid determination, ready to jog more miles, go to bed earlier, be more generous, eat less sugar. My list of “shoulds” and “oughts” stretched as long as the 365 days plotted out on my brand-new calendar.
By the time I limped across the threshold of the next Dec. 31st, all those goals would have been long abandoned. I diagnosed my failures with all sorts of maladies: laziness, sin, weakness. I just couldn’t follow through. The week between Christmas Day and New Year’s – prime resolution-making time – always inspired the same sinking feeling as Sunday morning confession.
In the church of my childhood, every service began with admitting to and asking forgiveness for sin:
“Almighty and most merciful Father … We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. … We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us.”
Every Sunday, I bewailed my inability to follow through on my promises to God. I hated myself for it, and I hated even more that I knew the next week I’d do no better. After all, as the confession itself told me, I was but a “miserable offender.”
Only years later did I begin to wonder if, perhaps, there was something wrong with the way I pursued goals. The key lay in fatally misunderstanding that phrase: “We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts.”
In the conservative Christian churches of my childhood, “following one’s heart” was considered not just a saccharine Disney truism but also a dangerous snare. My heart, my religious teachers reminded me, was deceitful and wicked, subject to the deadweight of Original Sin deposited there by the Fall of Adam.
I internalized that message scrupulously. My heart, my desires, my impulses were, I thought, my own worst enemies. In my daily life and decision-making, I responded to that knowledge in the only way that made sense to me: I tried to do the opposite of whatever my heart wanted.
An example: When I was thirteen years old, I was in love with ballet. It didn’t matter that my gangly body towered like a Texas pine above my willowy classmates. For a few hours, I got to glide along in satin-covered shoes, moved by music, forgetful of rigidity and overthinking and self-hatred as the dance swept me away.
So I quit.
I told myself that I was dancing “for the wrong reasons,” that I was only seeking attention. The desire for dance lay deep in my heart, so naturally, I distrusted it.
Desire is a difficult word for some of us to use. As Lauren Dubinsky, founder of The Good Women Project, describes, “growing up … ‘desire’ was always pre-fixed with the word ‘fleshly,’ and I was taught this always meant sexual immorality, greed, or rebellion.”
Episcopal priest James Reho defines desire differently in his book Tantric Jesus. A phenomenon both spiritual and physical, “Deep desire … has to do with the fulfillment of our most intimate and ultimate longings, our sacred purpose, our quest for profound meaning, deep pleasure, and holy flourishing for ourselves and for our world.”
In the conservative evangelical world, however, we couldn’t bring ourselves to trust such longings. Dubinsky continues,
“i learned thoroughly and effectively that i was a dangerous creature, and my thoughts and feelings and physical responses were what would betray me before the heavens. the more rapidly i could transform into something other than myself (a quiet, selfless, godly woman was the particular goal), the more righteous and holy and pleasing and blessed i would be. i owed it to my parents, to god. (not surprisingly, this became a chronic beast of anxiety and depression lasting for many years.)“
This was why my New Year’s resolutions never stuck: all my resolutions were attempts to live up to a standard I didn’t actually want to reach. In my cramped understanding of godliness, I thought being good meant becoming not more but less myself: less physical, less emotional, less assertive, less interesting. Less happy, certainly. Possibly less alive.
My theology didn’t dwell long enough on the fact that the Biblical story starts not with a curse but with a blessing. God creates a good world, and humans who are – heart and soul, body and mind – created in the divine image. I believed that sin had all but obliterated that image in our hearts, even though experience was proving such theology unlivable for me.
The journals from my first 22 years of life are full of anxiety and depression masked by a florescent veneer of praise. I worried constantly, convinced I had never submitted enough to God, never emptied myself as completely as I should. Jim and Elisabeth Elliot, Oswald Chambers, Amy Carmichael – such evangelical faith heroes seemed to have achieved a hyper-spiritual state in which all their energies were directed solely toward God and the intangible experiences of faith. Somehow, that was enough for them, but for me, it never was. I could not live by Bible study alone. I couldn’t stop myself wanting. I wanted to be happy without worrying that complacency would lead me to hell. I wanted to feel pretty without worrying about modesty. I wanted to hold a boy’s hand. By the time I left college, the prospect of living as I was for another forty years seemed unendurable, but I had very little idea of how to change. Years of suppressing my inner life in the name of “surrendering to God” left my intuition all but flatlined.
What if, I began to wonder, feeling flat, and small, and cold inside wasn’t the fullness of life Jesus promised? What if my dread and anxiety were products of following the desire of my heart not too much, but too little?
During the gray November of 2016, I took a few days’ vacation in California to do some soul-searching. I drove to Hermosa beach and wandered the seaside stores, trying to catch a glimpse of myself in the retail mirrors. Even though the sun wasn’t out, I bought a floppy wide-brim felt hat, and, in a gesture of defiant hope, my very first bikini: an overpriced trio of plain black triangles. Walking down to the beach in it, I was like a Marvel superhero stepping into their super suit for the first time, revealing an unfamiliar but inarguably right expression of identity.
Sitting on the beach, I cracked open my unread copy of Danielle LaPorte’s Desire Map: A Guide to Creating Goals with Soul. The wind blew, and my skin rose in goosebumps against the cold sand. It didn’t matter: this book, this beach, this moment was like sunshine in my hands. As I read, I knew in my gut that I had been charting my course wrong all these years. There was another way.
“Desire is the engine of creation. … It infuses us with the courage to do the most noble acts, to sacrifice, and pursue, and wrest ourselves away from the darkness to move into the light. … Desire leads the way home.”
LaPorte argues that setting powerful goals does not start with deciding what you ought to do. It starts further back: with recognizing who you want to be and, perhaps even more primally, with how you want to feel.
What if, I wondered. What if, embedded in the whisper of my deep desire, was the still, small voice of the divine?
I began to journal and experiment and observe. I wrote lists of what I wanted, ignoring my fear that once I started, I wouldn’t be able to stop. I want to surround myself with color. I want to learn to dance. I want to roadtrip and backpack through places that take my breath away and give it back again. I want to swear – when necessary, and with art. I want to learn to kiss really well. I distilled my desires into a handful of words that I clutched like talismans. Connected. Wild. Creative. Abundant. Free. I began to paint a mental picture of what a whole, happy me would look like. A person who recognized her faults, but offered herself compassion. A person who could give because she was overflowing with life.
Working backwards from desire to resolution, goals suddenly became a gift, not a drudgery. Instead of forcing myself to run through persistent knee pain, I took up aerial dance, and the knobby-kneed teenage ballerina in me rejoiced.
And then I forgot. In 2019, I lost ground to my old patterns of being. I fell into the old habit of co-opting standards that weren’t my own, choosing to make myself small and dutiful because it was easier than taking responsibility for my life.
Consequently, I’ve been dreading 2020 and its attendant resolutions. My body offers up visceral memories: the heaviness of my limbs at the thought of cold-bloodedly muscling myself into compliance with “shoulds.” The burning in my stomach at the judgment I heaped on myself when I failed.
So I gently remind myself, That’s not how we do this anymore. I return to those questions, Who do I want to be? How do I want to feel? I remember that making deep desire my compass means perfection is no longer the goal. I’m not comparing myself to an external standard for fear of punishment or in hope of reward. The pursuit is the reward. Here, today, any moment, I get to become more fully myself.
I am learning that growth moves in cycles and spirals and anything but a straight line. Progress isn’t necessarily the distance you cover toward a goal; sometimes it’s the curve of turning back to the ground where you first lost yourself. To whatever extent that return occurs more quickly, more consistently, or more instinctively over time, that is progress.
Ironically, that’s the true point of confession and repentance, isn’t it? A change in direction. A turning. But I understand now: the turning isn’t away from myself or my heart, but toward the self I most deeply want to be. We are more than “miserable offenders.” We are humans with hearts that, despite everything, remember a deep wholeness. The original blessing of our humanity reverberates in our skin, our flesh, our bones. That’s why I think Danielle LaPorte is right. If we learn to listen, desire can lead us home.
This is the gift of the New Year: a chance to listen. A chance to pause, and remember, and keep going … or maybe turn.
We live on a slingshot planet, one that streaks out on a madcap race, looping and careening through space at approximately 1,000 miles per hour. It wobbles a bit as it goes, but it always doubles back, returning at last within striking distance of its true course.
This New Year, I accept the opportunity to do the same.
In the past 3 years, Susannah has lived at 8 different addresses spanning 3 states and 1 foreign country (New Zealand). Amidst all that chaos, things that have remained the same have been her love for long walks, her fondness for big words, and her tendency to check out too many books from the library. These days, she can often be found exploring Washington state and singing loudly to cheesy pop music in the privacy of her vehicle. She writes about deconstructing fundamentalism in search of mentally healthy spirituality on instagram at @susannah_catherine and on her blog, thestillnessthedancing.com.