The Adjacent Possible as your New Year’s Resolution

Theologian Paul Tillich taught us a lot about what it meant to “have being.” Today I am thinking of his thoughts on the interplay between Destiny and Freedom.

Destiny – In each moment, we are each presented with particular facts that we must deal with. We are born a woman or a man, rich or poor, black or white. Each of these (and others) constitute who we are at any given moment.

Freedom – Regardless of the particular situation or context we find ourselves in, we have the ability to make decisions and take action that can lead us into new situations and contexts.

Today, a lot of people are finalizing their resolutions for the new year.  I used to scoff at this practice, but then I realized that it is part and parcel of what it means to be human. I actually think it is a good practice and one that churches should figure out how to sacramentalize.

It is no lie that our destiny plays a significant role in our lives. In a very real way, the particular situations and contexts we find ourselves in “set the parameters” for the ways which we will be able to function.

Notice that I wrote “set the parameters” not “limit our options.” This is the key, I think.

We are not stuck.

For instance, I get a bit annoyed by the newbies who delve into personality type theory (MBTI or Enneagram) and use it to make excuses for their behavior.  When I hear “Well, this is just the way I am” I walk away. This person is not looking for insight, but justification.

On the flip side, knowing your parameters helps you to move forward with your eyes open. I am an introvert and I make a pretty big deal out of it. Does that mean that I get to avoid social situations? Not at all. Knowing that I am an introvert makes me responsible for my well being, and requires that I take steps to fulfill my social responsibilities in a way that acknowledges that I can’t be around people constantly. I use what I have at my disposal to take positive steps forward.

Stephen Johnson wrote about this idea in Where Good Ideas Come From. In that work, he talked of the “adjacent possible,” the ability to see what resources and limitations are currently present and take a step forward by “cobbling them together to create new uses.”

It’s certainly not a one-to-one analogy, but it makes me realize that when I’ve failed at changes in the past, it is because they have been too drastic, too radical. I am a completely different person than I was 10 or 20 years ago, but the places of maturity represent gradual exploration and experimentation.

As you think about your New Year, I encourage you to shy away from goals that require a wholesale change in who you are. Instead, I encourage you to focus on a larger question – “What does it mean to be more patient?”, “What does it look like to be bold in my convictions?”, “What gifts and skills do I have that might be of some benefit to others?” – and explore it.

Don’t set yourself up for failure. Spend the year exploring one aspect of your life.

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