A not-so-little essay about goals and resolutions, if I don’t fall asleep on the keyboard

I very often have several little or not-so-little essays percolating in my mind, some of which, unlike my last post, can’t be reduced to three sentences. And Sunday afternoon seems like a fine time for ruminating. Sunday is also, however, a fine time for napping, so we’ll have to see whether drowsiness will have a stronger pull for me than the chewing of cud.

One of the most fascinating topics to me is whether and how people really change. I think it’s a core American ideal that people can improve themselves quite drastically, and in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day-Saints it’s an absolutely intrinsic belief that we can repent and become a new person. Yet we also believe that Jesus Christ’s Atonement applies to every innocent, including those who, for whatever reason, lack the understanding to make right choices, and that only Jesus and Heavenly Father know hearts and minds well enough to judge accountability. So we can stay quite pitiful and wretched and yet be saved, as long as we are genuinely doing the very best we can.

When I was in my first year of the “Personal Progress” program in the Church’s Young Women’s program, one of my leaders met with me to help me set goals. We found a goal in the booklet that had to do with sewing. I told her I had just completed sewing a shirt for myself, and wanted to count that as a completed goal. She said it was already in the past, and goals must be for something in the future, so I couldn’t count it. Afterward I decided that her approach to my “personal” progress didn’t feel very “personal” at all–and I never did any work in my Personal Progress booklet again.

I also acquired, partly as a result of this, a prejudice against setting goals, especially against public goal-setting.

Later, when I was a full-time missionary and encountered LDS young women who were diligently working towards their “medallion” (the pendant that’s given in recognition of completing Personal Progress) I was a bit ashamed of my past stubbornness, and avoided mentioning my lack of medallionized Young-Womanhood.

And yet, in spite of my rebellion in Personal Progress, as a young woman I still managed quite a bit of personal progress. In fact, I was possibly more task-oriented and forward-looking than average. (Or maybe we’re all task-oriented and forward-looking, but some people’s areas of focus and realms of success are more recognized than others: piano playing, yes; being an expert at Nintendo, less-so.) At any rate, when I was about fifteen or sixteen, I wrote down a list of things I wanted to do in the coming years. I don’t know if I still have the list somewhere, but it included things like learning to play the guitar, buying a car, going to college, and possibly going on a mission. (My sister Mary later told me that she had come across the list and it had made her cry, because I’d soon be moving on and away.) Then I forgot about my list, and when I came across it several years later I was amazed at how many of the things on the list I had accomplished, without doing any conscious followup. (It took me until I was 24 to buy a car, but I did it. And I don’t play the guitar, but I did take lessons long enough to decide it’s not for me unless I resign myself to calloused fingertips.) If anything, this experience strengthened my prejudice against public goals. But it also showed me that real personal progress is certainly possible, when the private goals that make it onto paper represent who we really are or want to become, and what we most deeply want.

Still, since I belong to a church that’s very pro-goal, and since I do love the idea of personal improvement, I try not to be too vociferously anti-goal. In fact, I guess what I’m really against is people’s privacy and autonomy being breached, especially if it gets in the way of their discovering and attaining their hopes and ambitions on their own terms.

Well, I hope this essay didn’t make you quite as sleepy as I now am. I’m actually just getting going, but to continue I’d have to track down a study I recently heard about, and since my eyelids are drooping, I’m going to call this Part 1, and give it myself a rest.

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22 Responses to A not-so-little essay about goals and resolutions, if I don’t fall asleep on the keyboard

  1. Emily S. says:

    I, too, am un-medallion-ized. I also did not graduate from seminary. Shocking, I know. Can you even believe my husband married me?! I liked your essay. I’m not a big goal-setter, and yet I am constantly striving to better myself. If I made goals when I was told to (in a church class, or for YW, etc.) they were always written down and then forgotten about. If I want to change something about myself, I just do it. If I mess up? I try again. If it’s something I really want to do, I’ll get there. I don’t have to write it down to make it real.

    • zstitches says:

      I didn’t graduate from seminary, either, and again it was an issue of idealism and stubbornness (which is a story for another day). And my husband was seminary president at his high school. I guess it’s a good thing I didn’t meet him until my humbler mid-twenties. And I (obviously) agree that when we really want to do something, we just do it.

    • zstitches says:

      Also, I just figured out who Emily S. is, and now I’m shocked, shocked! πŸ™‚

  2. Lili says:

    That illustration is hil.ar.ious. The bunny with the medallion looks weighed down, anyway. πŸ˜‰

    Shocking that I would agree with your ideas in this essay!

    I remember feeling guilty when I was 16 or so, knowing that I had a birthday coming up and that I would be having a birthday interview soon, and the bishop would ask me how my personal progress was going and I was going to have to confess to him that I wasn’t working on it. I mentioned this to mom, and she said, “Lili, do you set goals?” (me: “…yes …”) mom: “And do you achieve some of those goals?” me: “yes…” “then, when the bishop asks you how your personal progress is going, you tell him, ‘my personal progress is going great!'” I was grateful for a mom who helped me get it–what all this “personal progress” is about. (And as you know, all we sisters followed in your footsteps, and I too am un-madallionized. I mentioned this to one of my counselors in the RS presidency, and she laughed and said she loves learning that about me. Huh. Funny–I wonder why? Just that it’s sometimes funny how those of us who don’t fit the perfect stereo-typical mold of a good Mormon girl actually turn out to be good Mormon girls?). In other news, I had peers in high school who were shocked and worried about me when I didn’t graduate from seminary. Sigh… (so little of that matters now, though…)

    Who is Emily S?

    • zstitches says:

      Emily S. is our cousin. πŸ™‚

      I do think that there’s room within the church programs for kids to do things they actually want to do, if leaders don’t get in the way by being nit-picky and controlling. And the programs could help kids try worthwhile things they might not have otherwise, or remind them to do things they already wanted to do but might not have gotten around to. I’ll bet I’ll end up a Young Women leader sometime in the next few years and get a chance to earn my pendant. Even if not, parents are now supposed to work with their kids, so with three daughters I’ll get lots of chances to do Personal Progress (if that’s even what they’re calling it these days).

      But I also think that kids’ (and adults’) lives can often be way too scheduled and regimented, leaving kids little space to take their own initiative and carve their own path.

      • Lili says:

        Ah–Emily! Suh-weet. πŸ˜‰

        Ha, yes. I’ve suspected the time will come when I’ll be… um, supposed to encourage my own young women to… progress, and I’m sure I’ll have the opportunity to earn my gold bling.

      • Lili says:

        By the way, Z–my young women counselors were actually pretty cool, and would go through the book with me and we’d pick out the “goals” I’d already fulfilled. I may have even earned my first necklace. But even with cool counselors, I still fell off the wagon…

  3. Jason says:

    Eagerly awaiting Part 2, etc.

  4. Jason says:

    I had a similar or parallel experience in scouting. Bro K_____ wouldn’t give me my Canoeing merit badge at scout camp because I didn’t paddle the J-stroke perfectly. I quit working at scouts at only the Star or Life level. For many years I was embarrassed when the subject of Eagle Scouts arose.

    Seminary was a different story. I got a pass with horrible attendance my senior year because I was active on student council and because the whole seminary leadership knew I was bored out of my mind and chronically fatigued.

    Goal-setting annoys me most when it’s someone else’s idea. Why not simply ask me what I plan to do? Sometimes I play along, but sometimes I claim absurdly unrealistic goals and then defend them on the basis of self-confidence, positive mental attitude, and idealism.

  5. Mary Ann says:

    Best bunny picture EVER! Love it. I just wanted to say that. However, on the topic of personal progress, I got a medallion as a YW, and I’m going to rebel now as a mother of a YW. The DH has decided he wants me and Maddie to read the Book of Mormon and get our ribbon together. I’m going to let HIM read it with her, since he’s so fired up.
    What I AM doing, is talking to her about it each Sunday, either before or after church, because as you found, it works just fine with things you’re already doing, so long as you choose them *before* rather than after (seems like sometimes that’s what makes it a goal). So far we have worked in orchestra performances, assignments to talk at church and give a lesson in YW, and a swim meet all as bites out of the personal progress elephant.
    As for my mid-life rebellion, after all of the Julie Beck “do less” and the Elder Oaks “good, better, best” talks, I’d like a new policy policy akin to the BYU building policy in place: any time you come up with something new for me to do, you have to lighten my workload somewhere else — let me off scripture study or FHE or one of the sisters I visit teach. Or give me an extra hour in the day.
    I’m just sayin’ . . .

    • zstitches says:

      Yes. I probably shouldn’t even get started on this topic, but . . . here I go. I love the Good, Better, Best talk and all the simplifying advice that we’re constantly receiving these days, but I’m starting to wonder if I’ll see any of it implemented in my lifetime. Everyone thinks their calling/organization is exempt or the most important one, or they just can’t see how to magnify their calling without complicating someone else’s life. And I’d better stop before I start giving specific examples. People mean well. They love the Savior. But it sure is hard to get people to really cut back on the “clutter” of church programs.

      Although we don’t have a formal arrangement (and maybe should) I’ve sort of assumed that Dean should help Ike with scouting/Duty to God and I’d help the girls. To me it doesn’t appear to be working out particularly well because Dean means well but he doesn’t exactly keep it at the forefront of his mind (nor does Ike). Ike just had a Court of Honor and got a few awards but I was looking at a couple of boys who are Eagle Scouts, with perfect uniforms, who aren’t much older than Ike, and then at Ike in his floods (he’s been growing faster than we can clothe him) and his slightly small and very undecorated Scout shirt, and was feeling like I need to step it up. (And then I promptly forgot when the Court of Honor ended.) But it’s also true that if we really look at Ike’s schedule, Ike doesn’t have a a lot of free time. But we could do better about noticing where the things he does do line up with the program and get them counted. (Although, in the end, it’s also much more important to me that he do them than that they get counted.) Anyway, I hope I’ll be helpful with my girls. I do agree that lots of the things they are already doing or want to do are already part of the program, one just has to look at what’s there.

      I actually heard a positive Personal Progress story while I was visiting teaching today. My friend was doing Personal Progress (or whatever it’s called now–what is it called?) because she’s a YW leader, and she picked a goal to work on a relationship in her family, so she chose her husband and was trying to specifically pray for him and his needs each day. She even added a third week to her two-week goal when she realized she hadn’t focused as much as she’d meant to. And then, while writing about that experience in her Personal Progress journal, she realized that it was during that third week that a vexing problem he’d had for several months (a problem with his admission to a college program) had been very satisfactorily resolved during that third week.

  6. Emily S. says:

    HI! Yes, it’s me, your cousin. I thought I was subscribed to the replies, but haven’t been notified, so I just checked back in on the discussion.
    I agree, and agree, and agree.
    My oldest son is now 8 and has started the dreaded scouting program. He is excited about it and so I will support him. I will NOT do it for him or pull him along. His leader sends me emails asking about his achievements and awards and beads and beltloops and I just put it all on my son. I tell him to email his leader what he has done. He pulls out his book and asks me or Peter to do something with him and I’m all for it. I love to spend the time with him. But I do expect that he will be responsible for earning every badge, beltloop, and doodad and reporting it to his leaders.
    I was a very busy teenager and my 10th grade year when we discovered that the not so loved seminary teacher I had from 9th grade was moving up to be our teacher in 10th grade, my Mom and I decided that I could stay home from seminary as long as I was practicing the piano. I think I also had to do the seminary workbooks or study guide or something.

  7. OhSusanna says:

    I earned my medallion a few years ago, when I was a YW leader, and it was a very good experience. Also, I ALWAYS let my girls count things they had already done/were already doing, ’cause the point is to help girls set and keep worthy goals, and if they’re already doing those things, they should get credit for them, right?

  8. OhSusanna says:

    Heaven knows kids are busy enough as it is, no need to complicate things unnecessarily. Also, it’s not like I would know since I didn’t earn it back in the day, but the program does seem a lot more spiritually oriented these days–a lot of the goals are things that I think most of us would be encouraging our girls to do anyway.

    • zstitches says:

      I think Heaven does know how busy kids already are, but some leaders don’t, or anyway don’t seem to know how to not complicate things unnecessarily, or in some cases might not care to really try.

  9. OhSusanna says:

    Also (this will probably be the last of my lengthy comments for this Post), I had some weird seminary teachers. And I was also a little rebellious and probably not very humble.

    And I’ve known some kids whose PARENTS practically earned their medallions (or their Eagles) for them–and it didn’t do those kids any good.

    • zstitches says:

      I think I could have graduated from Seminary and earned my medallion with more humility and the right workarounds. But I also think that for the most part I still turned out okay. And I think that losing one’s sense of autonomy in self-improvement or one’s love of the subjects in question (gospel knowledge and gospel living) can in the long run be much more deleterious than avoiding a somewhat-mismanaged program.

  10. Robert says:

    This is a terrific post.

    And there’s too much to say on it @ 1am (I KNOW, I KNOW!).

    I will say that I’m usually averse to goals, but found myself setting a very meaningful one (to me) this last New Year’s, resolved so.

    Also, on a similar note, a well-meaning leader once asked me how my testimony was, which seemed the oddest thing to me, and I felt like I should somehow be guilty.

    The truth is that often people are well-meaning, but just as ill equipped as the children they lead to really help them achieve. It’s such a challenge, especially when you feel love for the gospel, or have been converted to a particular thing (such as goals), and want to share that.

    Love, I have found, is the overarching principle in really relegating inappropriate overzealous leadership to the court of actual effective aid.

  11. sudoku says:

    The subsequent time I learn a blog, I hope that it doesnt disappoint me as much as this one. I mean, I do know it was my option to learn, but I truly thought youd have something interesting to say. All I hear is a bunch of whining about one thing that you could possibly repair when you werent too busy on the lookout for attention.

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