12/29/2011 03:26 pm ET Updated Feb 28, 2012

New Year's Resolutions: A Confucian View

It's that time of year again when we find ourselves making those infamous resolutions for the New Year. While some may be of the most banal sort -- to lose weight, to drink less coffee, to take that dream vacation. Most, we might hope, suggest a focus upon the betterment of ourselves as a person.

But New Year's resolutions seem all too automatically composed and all too soon and easily neglected and forgotten. And so their point would be?

The point of a resolution is the establishment of a goal and the commitment to that goal. We want to be a better person whatever our religious or non-religious persuasion and we make a resolution to pursue ways to fulfill that goal -- to become a better person.

What does such an idea mean for Confucius?

There is a passage in the Analects of Confucius that provides the foundation for a resolution. It is not a New Year's resolution per se, but rather a resolution for life. This particular passage suggests a resolution that becomes a compass charting the course of the development of a life -- a moral compass point if you will.

Confucius is quoted as saying, "At fifteen I had set my will upon learning. At thirty, I stood firm. At forty, I had no doubts. At fifty, I knew the will of Heaven. At sixty, I heard it with a listening ear. At seventy, I could follow my heart's desire without overstepping what was right." (Analects II:4)

Described by some as the shortest autobiography ever written (!), the passage in fact speaks to benchmarks of life, each a progression forward in a life defined by the quest to become a person of jen, goodness and humaneness.

And where does this life so described begin? It begins with a commitment, a resolution to pursue learning, the learning fundamental to the transformation of the individual into a person of goodness and humaneness.

And each of the succeeding statements in the passage is in a fashion a confirmation of the first resolution, suggesting resolve, tenacity, perseverance -- all the elements that sadly seem to guarantee our own New Year's resolutions will go the way of the wrapping paper of holiday gifts -- recycled at best!

The passage is remarkable not only for its commitment and resolve, but for the humility it shows. As Confucius brings his own life into accord with the ultimate Way, what he describes as the will of Heaven, he admits to faltering in his capacity to follow it.

Indeed, are we not all the same in those resolutions for betterment when we encounter the difficulty involved in their realization! So easy to make, so hard to maintain!

Thus, Confucius says, at 50, he knew the course to follow, but it was only at 60 that he could follow its course with docile ear! And then the summation of a life of commitment to learning -- at 70 his life is free for it is now in accord with the ultimate Way -- all actions mirror the actions of the Way.

Throughout we witness Confucius' commitment and recommitment to a resolution made in youth and followed throughout a life, a commitment maintained through resolve, tenacity and perseverance.

Surely such a passage is much more than any of us would consider for those infamous New Year's resolutions. At the same time, Confucius' passage should give us pause to reflect upon the nature of the commitments we make to ourselves and others in order to better ourselves and the life of others.

There is no religious tradition that does not encourage the taking of such commitments and even the advent of commitment by a resolution. One also does not need to stand within a religious tradition to make the same kind of commitment. Such a commitment, such a resolution, is always there as a path that any human is capable of treading.

What stands in our way is the oft-characterized banalities with which we live. Life can be as meaningful or meaningless as one chooses.

Not unlike the American poet Robert Frost's (1874-1963) allusion to the road "less taken" from his poem "The Road Not taken," often the pursuit of the most meaningful course is the least popular course. The resolution Confucius makes to pursue a life of learning toward betterment of himself and others was the road not just less taken, but unfortunately the road least taken in his own day. Dare I suggest it is as true today as it was in the world Confucius faced?

The road most frequently taken seems all too sadly to be the life of ease, the life without self-reflection, without commitment to our brothers and sisters, without sacrifice for others, a life focused upon our own material comforts that holds sway and that attracts us again and again. But one does not have to choose the easy route, the road most traveled. The choice is ours. We can choose the road "less taken."

And that brings us back to this issue of New Year's resolutions -- a true commitment; a true resolution that might actually cause the betterment of ourselves as individuals and thus the world in which we live. Was Confucius saying anything different in his expression of a life committed to learning of Way of goodness and humaneness?

Take the opportunity this year to turn those New Year's resolutions to self-reflection upon and commitment toward what ultimately will bring peace and good will to all humankind.

Happy New Year!